The education of a prig as an American in Taiwan evolves from self-righteous missionary to compassionate stand-in husband.
Meet Vincent Saunders, man on a mission. The 24-year-old Presbyterian from a small town in Illinois, fluent in Mandarin, is charged with establishing a ministry in Toulio, Taiwan. Free English lessons followed by Bible study: that’s the deal. The “Jesus teacher” immediately targets his landlady’s teenaged son but passes on his housemate, Alec from Scotland. Alec is Vincent’s antithesis, moody, profane and a serious hash smoker (when the drug makes him sick, Vincent wishes him a full measure of pain as a cure). But then lonely Vincent strays from the straight and narrow. Schoolgirl Trudy charms him with a fumbled kiss, and soon the two are making love five nights a week. Vincent’s missionary work falters. His commitment to Christ evaporates. But given that his whole life has been anchored by faith, it just isn’t credible that he could shuck it off like an old skin, without agonizing. Meanwhile, word of his trysts has reached Trudy’s brother, who beats Vincent to a pulp. He’ll have to leave town, but he can’t face the folks back home. Fortunately, there’s an alternative: Mr.Gwa, an affluent businessman, needs a foreigner for a sham marriage to a mainland beauty he wants brought to Taiwan; Vincent will get ten grand. Since Kai-ling lives in a desert town in China’s remote northwest, the story now turns into a travelogue, with Vincent the filter for impressions of China in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. His experiences induce the epiphany that “you could navigate your life without knowing,” just loving its mystery. Arriving in Urumchi, Vincent finds that Gwa’s desert rose has her own agenda, and attention shifts to her homely sister Jia-ling. Through the twists and turns of the novel’s final third, Vincent is all heart, looking out for the vulnerable Jia-ling and visiting Alec, now a convicted drug-smuggler, in prison.
A plodding first novel, hollow at its center.