This richly painted literary novel brings a Portuguese doctor to 19th-century China to find a cure for syphilis.
In 1898, Doctor Antonio Maria is one of Portugal’s best doctors, but when his widowed father becomes desperately ill with syphilis Doctor Maria will do anything, go anywhere to find a cure to save his father’s life. With reason to believe the Chinese have a cure, he leaves his fiancée behind and sails to China, devoting himself to learning medical secrets from a man named Xu. The trouble is that Doctor Maria must live in China for four seasons and learn the ways of qi before Xu will teach him what he wants to know. In the meantime he falls in love with Fumi, a mysterious woman with close ties to the Empress Dowager. Will he find the cure in time to return home and save his father? Or find it and return to Portugal before the West-hating Boxers kill him and all the other foreigners? Does Xu even know the cure, or is he simply stringing Doctor Maria along for his own purposes? Can he meet the Empress and enlist her help? People are not who they seem as Doctor Maria immerses himself deeply in a strange and complex culture. Readers will get vicarious pleasure as he learns an array of sexual positions from Fumi. Occasional passages are briefly confusing as the narrative dips in and out of nightmares, but ultimately they help the story. For a man with an urgent mission, Doctor Maria seems incredibly patient, even distracted, as he navigates the ways of a world in which he is often the unwelcome outsider. Many people suffer losses in this novel, a deeply satisfying tale mixing history, cultural clashes, violence and love. Fortunately, it’s the readers who win.