Two sisters grow up without meeting and follow different but intersecting paths in 20th-century China and the United States.
In this novel, Meyer (Myths in Stone: Religious Dimensions of Washington, D.C., 2001) traces the temporal and spiritual journeys of the two daughters of an American missionary stationed in China before World War II. Victoria, the older one, is kidnapped as a child by a religious sect that sees her as its future leader. Livia, born after Victoria’s disappearance, endures an internment camp with her parents during the war, then grows up in midcentury America. The narrative moves back and forth between the two sisters as Victoria, now known as Bu’er, learns traditional healing and survives Mao’s ascendancy and the Cultural Revolution in an out-of-the-way village, gradually coming to terms with her role in the religious community. Meanwhile, Livia converts to Roman Catholicism, experiences the 1960s as a college student, pursues a Ph.D., and becomes a scholar of Chinese religion. As relations between China and the United States are restored in the 1970s and ’80s, Livia is able to return to her country of birth and promises her dying mother she will find out what happened to Victoria. The plot, sedate and expansive for most of the book, takes a Robert Ludlum–esque turn as Livia faces challenges from suspicious locals and government officials in her search for Victoria, but it returns to a more contemplative pace in the final chapters. Meyer is clearly knowledgeable about Chinese history and culture (an author’s note explains his personal connections to the country), and the text is full of rich details that enhance the book’s fully realized setting. Memorable secondary characters play key roles in both storylines, each distinctly drawn and thoroughly developed. The occasionally repetitive narrative (for instance, there are multiple conversations about Livia becoming a department chair at a college) could have been more tightly edited. But the tale avoids getting bogged down in philosophical discussions and maintains its momentum as the sisters undergo their separate religious evolutions.
An engrossing fictional exploration of family, culture, and what it means to belong in both China and America.