In this novel of self-discovery set against the backdrop of a turning point in China’s history, a middle-aged man comes to terms with his bicultural identity and finally learns a sense of integrity and responsibility.
Abandoned by his Chinese mother shortly after World War II, Dan Young was brought up in Connecticut by an American father who took little interest in his son. Dan’s only ally in his youth was his English teacher, Bernie Fales, but Bernie’s mentoring did little to counteract the influences of parental neglect and racial hostility. After his relationship with a Native American woman violently ends, Dan gives up the last of his altruism and ideals and focuses his efforts on looking out for himself. One divorce, many failed relationships and a layoff later, he leaves a successful career in finance to spend six months teaching English at a Beijing university, hoping to learn about his mother and the Chinese heritage he never knew. Through his Chinese students and international colleagues, he learns about the challenges and complexities of life in modern China, especially the conflicts that ultimately bring him to Tiananmen Square. Rudolph (The Ashes of Santorin, 2012) presents a convincing picture of 1980s China, particularly the differences between the way locals and foreigners experience the country. However, the number of minor errors in the text—Spanish phrases are misspelled; one character leaves for the U.S. embassy in Taiwan, which had been closed for a decade—might lead readers to question its overall accuracy. Dan’s transformation at the end seems a bit too pat, particularly the sudden change in his relationships with women and his dubiously earned redemption. The story as a whole is engaging, though, and the fast-moving events that shape Dan’s journey will keep the pages turning.
An effective novel of recent history that rises above its flaws on the strength of a well-told story.