A panoramic whirl through Chinese history in a first novel inspired by a Chinese grandmother who was granted that most ambiguous of wishes--to live in interesting times. A granddaughter of the first democratically elected vice- president of China, Li takes her family's remarkable saga and gives it a fictional spin as she recounts the story of Bittersweet, a peasant farmer's daughter who becomes the wife of a famous Chinese leader, endures civil and world wars, and celebrates her hundredth birthday as the students protest in Tiananmen Square. From birth, Bittersweet seems marked for great things: she's a fourth daughter who should have been killed at birth, but her vitality so impresses her mother that she spares the child--a decision reinforced by the fortuneteller's prediction that a good, long life lies ahead. The child thrives, survives a near-fatal illness, and, defying custom, marries a young man, Delin, whom she chooses herself. Delin, a farmer's son turned soldier, advances rapidly to become a military hero, an ally of Chiang Kai-shek's, and eventually vice-president. Bittersweet, eponymously named, shared his glory but not his heart, for though she gives him a son, Delin soon takes a second wife. Bittersweet's is a story of survival, of courageously adapting to difficult circumstances that include the upheavals of war, exile in Hong Kong, and, with her son and his family, the US. After the Cultural Revolution, there's a return to China, where Bittersweet attains that great objective of Chinese happiness--``four generations living under the same roof.'' Accompanying the story are digressions into Chinese history and custom that are sometimes so insistent that Bittersweet's remarkable life and character are lost in the intrusion. Promising and certainly instructive, but a bit of a bumpy ride.