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.
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