Family clashes, vivid personalities, exotic settings, the beat of history: a personal story of pre-Revolutionary China with all the ingredients of a fictional saga--so many, in fact, that it ultimately forfeits credibility. Wei begins, stunningly, with her return to China in 1981, to see her dying father: it is her first visit in 33 years, the result of the first letter from her parents. . .and her mother is preoccupied with ""the quantities of goods"" she had requested from Hong Kong. On receipt of the letter, ""I had come within the grip of Mother's power."" Sucked into Wei's Peking childhood, you don't question it: the mock-Western household, where tiny Katherine and older sister Alice are trotted out, ""in our tartan skirts and patent leather shoes,"" to entertain guests with ""a frantic Charleston"" to the tune of ""Jeepers Creepers,"" is hideously real; so is her mother's crazed, humiliated refusal to believe that she's given birth to a fourth daughter. But the psychological hinge on which Wei's hatred of her mother turns is what she sees as her own rejection, as Second Daughter, and subsequent exploitation, as a substitute son. First her mother favors grave, artistic Alice, to Katherine's envy--but there are magical sorties into Peking with maverick cook Lao Chang, and Father's exciting defiance of Mother to take Katherine to the opera (Alice's sudden weakness notwithstanding) ""the night war came to Peking."" Then, taking flight, the family makes a dramatic passage into Father's past: to Hunan, where Katherine is singled out as her overlord-grandfather's favorite and taught to perform such ritual tasks as preparing his opium pipe--to the exclusion of her mother, and her elevation in everyone's eyes. The next drastic move is to dismal wartime Chungking, where her father is serving as a Kuomintang aide, her mother takes sick, her father fails to get proper help, and Katherine (now a young teenager) brashly seeks out the one qualified, crippled, reclusive doctor. . .at which point, if not before, doubts appear. Finally, the war ended, the family is in Shanghai--where Alice blocks an advantageous arranged marriage (for love of an unacceptable suitor) and Katherine, cast as the seductive hostess of a slightly sinister Chinese-American, attracts the desirable, US-bound Chang-jui. . .only to hesitate, and bring down her mother's wrath. And it's her thought that her mother had been using her to secure her own future, and now to manage the family's escape from China, that is the basis of the Second Daughter/substitute son grievance--disregarding the earlier, frustrated hopes in Alice, the universal use of daughters to this end. (Wei did marry Chang-jui in America, though they later divorced.) Absorbing as the early parts are, they are clouded by second thoughts, while the reader must increasingly fight suspicion of self-dramatization on Wei's part.