Money doesn’t buy happiness for a woman struggling with low self-esteem, a loveless marriage and China’s sexist mores in this anguished memoir and self-help saga.
Zhu’s narrative of her life with a never-named billionaire makes for a classic rags-to-riches story in new China, as the two build a successful real estate development company from scratch and ascend to a world of jet-setting luxury. Unfortunately for her, the dream becomes a nightmare. Endless work leaves the couple no time for family life—Zhu is heartbroken when her husband insists on sending their 5-year-old son to a boarding school so they can devote more hours to the business—and the high-wire financial gambles make her sick with anxiety. Worst of all, in keeping with Chinese conceptions of female inferiority, her aloof husband treats her as a servant and underling whose only function is to carry out his orders. The result, she writes, is an empty life replete with possessions but devoid of satisfaction in which her eyes became “lifeless like empty shells…fallen to the bottom of the sea.” Helped by translator and co-author Lee’s deft prose, Zhu’s interesting if melodramatic memoir illuminates many aspects of China’s transition to modernity, sounding themes reminiscent of an Edith Wharton novel. Zhu’s transformation from factory worker to woman of wealth, managing servants and negotiating the intricate rituals of business etiquette, is complex and absorbing. In poignant contrast, her desire for romantic companionship clashes with older notions of marriage as a prosaic, hierarchical domestic enterprise. We see a shy, uncertain, self-effacing woman reaching toward personal fulfillment as she tears free from Confucian–Communist ideals of dutiful self-sacrifice. Her journey of self-discovery, sparked by an Australian self-help seminar, can sometimes take the book into anodyne therapy-speak: “You need only be yourself for your natural vitality to rise.” Still, Zhu’s story is thoughtful, conflicted and honest enough to make her newfound wisdom feel earned.
A vivid, intimate account of the vast changes roiling the lives of Chinese women.