This saga about a Chinese family is YA-novelist Kwei’s first for adults.
In 1937, Purple Jade, the soon-to-be matriarch of the Huang household, contemplates her tiny lotus feet. “No one calls them golden lilies anymore. Now they are only tiny feet and worse than your big feet,” she says to her beloved servant, Orchid. But Purple Jade has other concerns beyond the constant pain in her bound feet: There’s an unsettling influence of American and European “West Ocean Devils”; internal strife between the Nationalists and Communists; and an impending Japanese invasion—they have taken Manchuria already—that threatens Confucian China, a world that will soon disappear forever. Kwei details Chinese traditions and the fascinating but evanescent world as only someone steeped in the old ways could. An adept stylist and storyteller, Kwei weaves with simplicity this tale of upper-class China in upheaval. For all the difficulties looming on the horizon, it’s another, more immediate problem that possesses Purple Jade, one that impinges on the family’s honor: The “book-fragrant” and scholarly Huangs lack a son. Having a male heir is a matter of prestige, but Purple Jade has produced only two girls, Golden Bell and Silver Bell. Putting aside her own jealousy in the hope of saving the family’s honor, Purple Jade decides to get her husband, Righteous Virtue, a concubine. Kwei artfully reveals the practices and attitudes of Old China to those who may never have encountered Chinese ideas. For her part, Purple Jade is “not sure if a foreigner could ever savor the heart-swelling glory of ‘giving face,’ and subjecting oneself to ‘virtue.’” Kwei also effectively contrasts traditional roles of women with Western feminism. Miss Tyler, an American teacher at the Christian school, may find Purple Jade’s ideas of virtue strange, but Purple Jade finds Miss Tyler’s defense of women’s rights just as odd. This is a novel that casts its own unique spell.
An engaging family saga by a talented storyteller.