Rich local color mixes uneasily with a conventional—and one-dimensional—chase thriller.
Allison Turk brings nine-year-old stepson Tyler along on her Chinese adventure, culminating in the adoption of a beautiful baby girl named Wen Li. Among the other American parents-to-be are rugged Nash Cameron and his too-obedient wife Claire, single mother Ruth Pollard, and three other couples. In the remote Jiangsu province, on the night before the group is to sign the official papers and leave with their new babies, they receive devastating news from the government. The babies are “unfit” for adoption and will be replaced by others the following day. Unable to part with Wen Li after having spent nearly a week with her, Allison decides to make a run for it, Tyler and her new daughter in tow. If they can make it to Shanghai and the American consulate, they know they’ll be safe. Ruth Pollard and the Camerons and their babies go along, but the other couples, fearful of reprisals, stay behind. Fortunately, Yi Ling, their Chinese interpreter and guide, is undergoing a crisis of conscience about her government’s rigidity, and she responds to Allison’s earnest appeal for help. Emboldened by her liberating decision, Yi Ling commandeers a van and speeds the group away. When her boss, Director Lin, learns what’s happened, the chase is on—and it continues for nearly 300 pages, by car, boat, and foot as the escapees depend on the kindness of strangers (mostly simple villagers) to avoid discovery. Infighting begins almost immediately, mostly over Nash’s efforts to assert control. For Director Lin, finding and returning the babies to the orphanage is a matter of life and death: his. He tries to convince Allison’s husband Marshall to implore (and perhaps betray) her, or the consequences could be dire.
Second-novelist Ball (Empires of Sand, 1999) writes evocatively about Chinese society and customs, but his people fail to convince or engage.