Review: Pearl of China

Pearl of China

Pearl of China
By Anchee Min
(Bloomsbury USA, Paperback, 9781608193127, March 2011, 304pp.)

The Short of It:

Interesting premise but poorly executed.

The Rest of It:

It is the end of the nineteenth century and China is riding on the crest of great change, but for nine-year-old Willow, the only child of a destitute family in the small southern town of Chin-kiang, nothing ever seems to change. Until the day she meets Pearl, the eldest daughter of a zealous American missionary.

The “Pearl” referenced in that blurb is Pearl S. Buck, author of The Good Earth and numerous other novels. The story follows the lives of Willow and Pearl. This includes their marriages to horrible men, Willow’s imprisonment over refusing to denounce Pearl’s work, and Pearl’s rise as a writer. Some of the novel is based on fact, but the friendship itself is total fiction, which I was disappointed to learn.

The historical bits about Mao’s Red Revolution and particularly the bits about his wife, were fascinating but not fleshed out. There were numerous gaps in the storyline. In real life, Pearl was a visionary. Highly revered for her humanitarian efforts yet in the story, her life almost took a backseat to Willow’s. Min was forced to denounce Buck’s work so perhaps this book was her way of paying homage to the writer. I’m not sure she succeeded, but what she did do was make me want to read The Good Earth.

In additional to the gaps in storyline, the writing itself  is a classic example of “telling” and not “showing.” Min tells you all about these horrible marriages yet she shares nothing about them. I never get a feel for the situation that these women are in. Even the imprisonment, which I’m sure would have been a harrowing experience for anyone, is glossed over with just a few sentences telling us how horrible it was.

Pearl of China was my book club’s pick for July. What could have been a fabulous read, ended up being a thin outline of historical facts with a underdeveloped story thrown in for good measure. I can’t recommend this book, although it did provide quite a bit for us to discuss at our meeting.

Source: Borrowed.

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24 thoughts on “Review: Pearl of China”

  1. I really enjoyed The Good Earth so I had such high hopes for this book. It will definitely be interesting to hear what the other book club members thought of it. Thanks for the honest review!

  2. Ah, too bad. I was vaguely interested in this one, but doubt I’d go out of my way to get a copy. I did enjoy her Red Azalea when my book club read it ages ago.

  3. This is surprising. After hearing Min speak at a writer’s festival last winter, I was totally blown away by her storytelling skills. She is really animated and funny. It’s too bad her personality doesn’t translate to the page…

    1. Someone in my book club also heard her speak, and said the same thing. That she was really wonderful to listen to. We all felt that this book was interesting, yet it didn’t seem as if any effort was made to tell a story.

  4. I think my old boss read this one – can’t remember what she thought about it, but it’s been on my list. I’ll likely still try it, but I appreciate your thoughts on it. Sounds like it might not be a good book to suggest for book group.

  5. I was kind of looking forward to this one, but now I’m not sure. I didn’t realize the friendship was fiction and all those issues you mentioned are sure to bother me. Oh well. Nice review!

  6. I find it disappointing Willow and Pearl’s friendship is complete fiction and I haven’t read it yet. But this book seems to have several other problems. Pearl S. buck had such a fascinating and full life so it strikes me as strange that it’s almost as if the author had difficulty writing about her. Too bad. I appreciated your review. Thanks!

  7. I liked The Good Earth but I think that I’ll skip this one. I find that some of our best book club discussions are on books that many of us don’t like so I can imagine that you had a good discussion. I hope that your next book club pick is better.

  8. Nothing worse than a great premise that is poorly executed. It always makes me want to give the premise to a different writer to see if they can give me the book I was hoping to read.

  9. I didn’t even finish this one. And I am a huge fan of Pearl S. Buck. You hit the nail on the head.

  10. This seems to be one people really disagree one. Jill from Rhapsody in Books Weblog spoke so lovingly of it that when I expressed interest in it, she sent it to me. I haven’t gotten to it yet and now I’m a little leary.

  11. Yep. It was a total letdown. I don’t often say this, but I felt the book was too short. There was so much that could have been included to make it more interesting.

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