I received a digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press
Publication Date: 04/08/2020
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction | Asian Fiction
Mini Pao lives with her sister and parents in a pre-war Shanghai divided among foreign occupiers and Chinese citizens, a city known as the “Paris of the East” with its contrast of vibrant night life and repressive social mores. Already considered an old maid at twenty-three, Mini boldly rejects the path set out for her as she struggles to provide for her family and reckons with her desire for romance and autonomy. Mini’s story of love, betrayal, and determination unfolds in the Western-style cafes, open-air markets, and jazz-soaked nightclubs of Shanghai—the same city where, decades later, her granddaughter Ting embarks on her own journey toward independence.GoodReads
Ting Lee has grown up behind an iron curtain in a time of scarcity, humility, and forced-sameness in accordance with the strictures of Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. As a result, Ting’s imagination burns with curiosity about fashion, America, and most of all, her long-lost grandmother Mini’s glamorous past and mysterious present. As her thirst for knowledge about the world beyond 1970s Shanghai grows, Ting is driven to uncover her family’s tragic past and face the difficult truth of what the future holds for her if she remains in China.
Lately I have been reading a lot of Japanese and Korean fiction, but not a lot of Chinese fiction, or fiction set in China, and reading this novel highlighted how much of a mistake on my part that is!
Both Ting and Mini are great characters who complement each other very well when the novel bounces between the two perspectives. I found Ting’s childhood fascinating, especially how the other children would react to news of her grandmother. However, as the novel progressed I found that I was far more keen to go further back in time to see what Mini was doing. There’s so much mystery surrounding Mini that I, like Ting, just wanted her to come back so I could hear more of her story.
That was another detail that I liked with the novel: the structure of finding out more about Mini’s life when she returns to China on visits makes the reader feel as though they are Ting waiting for her to return and listen to her story. The gradual reveal keeps the novel well paced and keeps your attention throughout.
I feel that all of the characters embody a different aspect of China and its history, from the traditions of the Shi family to Ting’s college friends desperate to escape a life of no choices. They all very much feel like products of their time and you can see that Brumfield really understands all of these different types of people and the hardships they faced, as well as put others through in some cases. A character that surprised me was Mini’s father, Mr. Pao, he is just so different from the stereotypical Chinese father which was really refreshing; he really contrasted with all of the other men that we’re introduced to in that time.
Unfortunately, my knowledge of China and China’s history is somewhat lacking, however, Brumfield’s writing truly opened my eyes to the brutality China’s people have faced and the challenges that are still faced by Chinese women. It also illustrated what life was like just after Chairman Mao’s reign, as well as, in the height of its communism. The novel made me consider things that I hadn’t before and that’s just one of the reasons why I would recommend people to read this novel.
Whilst the characters face many heartbreaking events, the novel as a whole isn’t entirely doom and gloom. The strength both Ting and Mini have to stand up to others and make their own decisions is inspiring. The final scene, without going into any detail, is uplifting and filled with hope and will stay with me for a while.