Two star-crossed lovers navigate romantic confusion, familial interference, and looming war in this novel, set in China in the 1930s and '40s.
Shen Shijun and Gu Manzhen, the central characters of this novel by Chang (1920-1995), are both eminently admirable figures: hardworking, kind to their friends, and dedicated to their families. That they slowly realize their love for one another isn’t much of a surprise since their slow-burning recognition occupies much of the book’s first half. Circumstances soon force them to part, and the interference of Manzhen’s family turns what could have been a brief separation into one that lasts for years. Translator Kingsbury's introduction discusses the book's evolution and the circumstances of its publication, which makes for a compelling story on its own. The original version was published in the early 1950s, then substantially revised, with a political plotline excised for a 1969 edition. Though this is, according to Kingsbury’s telling, Chang’s “most popular novel,” this edition marks its first English translation. And there’s plenty to savor. Chang’s attention to detail is meticulous, and the way the plot navigates societal mores and taboos calls to mind the work of Edith Wharton. The novel’s supporting characters are also unpredictable: a brief comic moment reveals the less-than-charitable thoughts of two of Shijun's relatives upon seeing each other for the first time in years: "It's really awful when a man our age gets sick. One bad spell, and he looks positively geriatric!" “Those false teeth make Jyu-sun look like a buck-toothed granny. What a decline since I last saw him!” Over the course of the novel, romance and regret are interlaced, each one given the appropriate weight.
With compelling protagonists and a host of memorable supporting characters, this novel tells an emotionally complex story with a number of powerful moments.