Zee presents an elegantly written, stirring love story set in the expatriate community of Peking, China in the 1930s.
Thirteen-year-old Daria is sent from Chicago to China to live with Ethel Clierce, a family friend who her mother hopes will teach Daria to behave like a lady. Once Daria arrives, however, Mrs. Clierce’s son David unexpectedly takes her under his wing, and the pair develop a close relationship. Daria spends her adolescent years in Peking getting into various scrapes—from harmless clowning in school to, later, inciting rumors about a visiting violinist. Daria also falls in love with David, who is a gifted pianist and charming gentleman. However, he’s 10 years her senior and alternately returns and rebuffs her affections, leaving her to compete for his attention with two other women. Zee’s detailed descriptions make Peking come alive, as when she describes a market: “[T]he lighted counters of heaped fruits and flowers, kites and lanterns hanging overhead, displays of actors’ masks, the clangor of cymbals and drums emanating from the theater.” The shadow of war lurks in the background and sometimes appropriately eclipses the love story as China’s people split between Nationalists and Communists. Daria, David and their various companions are all compelling characters; Daria, especially, is a complex young woman who, for the time period, experiments particularly boldly with her power and sexuality. The novel’s greatest weakness, however, is its dearth of multifaceted Chinese characters, as most are described as “coolies”—true to the times, particularly in a wealthy expat community. One exception is the political dissident De-an, who plays a slightly larger role in the plot. The story can be choppy at times, and some readers may find the ending somewhat unsatisfying, but the novel makes up for such shortcomings with a good deal of suspense and an authoritative prose style.
An engaging read for fans of historical romance novels set in foreign lands.