Kirkus Reviews QR Code
MY LAST EMPRESS by Da Chen Kirkus Star

MY LAST EMPRESS

By Da Chen

Pub Date: Oct. 2nd, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-38130-9
Publisher: Crown

Nabokov meets Dream of the Red Chamber.

Chen (Brothers, 2006, etc.), a Chinese-born writer and now resident of New York's Hudson Valley, has a profoundly developed feel for the sweep of history—though here, unlike in Brothers, he compresses what might have been a saga into 300 pages. His story has an epic feel all the same: Samuel Pickens, a Yankee born into wealth and privilege, falls into head-swooning love with the daughter of a New England missionary who has spent her youth in China. Alas, their young love is fleeting, but events pull Samuel across the ocean and into a web of mystery, not least the fact that, years later, Samuel comes into contact with a young woman in the imperial court who looks very strangely like his lost love. The discovery turns Samuel’s world upside down, of course. Chen is a master of suggestion by telling detail: Of the man who teaches Samuel Chinese, for example, he writes, “No one had taught us more with less,” while Samuel’s plans first come a cropper with a potential employer’s being “choked to death by butterflies in his throat”—a neat allusion to Madama Butterfly there, perhaps. Chen sets up the enigma that Samuel must decipher before the first act closes, and though the solution isn’t deeply buried, he takes his time in uncovering it elegantly. For those with an eye for such things, Chen also does a nice job of serving up literary erotica of a sort to do Colette proud: “Then she rode with gentleness, as if the horse beneath her was trotting on a soft path; her rosebud breasts heaved and her hair tossed with each motion.”

A lyrical tale of crossed borders, boundaries and destinies, expertly told.