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Unlike Bryant's more recent novels (A Day in San Francisco, Killing Wonder, Prisoners) in which articulate, searching principals struggle intensely with contemporary dilemmas, this is a heavily-messaged woman's odyssey set mainly in California (from the turn of the century to the 50's) that races through decades of often bizarre incidents. But like many similar picaresque pop novels, it does not take root along the way in convincing character or period ambiance. Offspring of a Chinese waif. prostitute and an English ne'er-do-well, Mei Li, as a child, ran free in the decaying fishing community on San Francisco Bay. Eventually, it will be half-sister Erika (a successful prostitute--who reads Greek) who will groom Mei Li for a career as a psychic (she mischievously howled disaster just before the 1906 earthquake). Mei Li will become successful--and miserable--both on tour and in England during WW I, but it's not until the 1930's, when she's broadcasting advice on radio, that she packs it all in. (Erika, furious, promises revenge. And delivers.) Then it's on to found a commune in the mountains, fueled by a mystical experience. The commune fails, there's a stretch with migrant workers--with whom she shares toil, strikes and government betrayal--and, at the close, there's a kind of freedom in a mental institution. Throughout the life trek, Mei Li will have an affair with an avuncular black newsman and a female friend, who, like her, denies self for meaning and good works. She'll lose a husband and child, contemplate suicide and buck oppression--as a Chinese, a worker, a woman. A disappointing novel from Bryant, lacking the immediacy, humor and vitality of her other work.

Pub Date: Dec. 15th, 1986
ISBN: 155861186X
Publisher: Ata Books (1928 Stuart St., Berkeley, CA 94703)