An exotic and nimbly fashioned first novel about a troubled young woman hoping to save her marriage while on a cruise down the Yangtze River.
Thirty-two-year-old Jenny, owner of a fashionable Manhattan boutique though she’s originally from Alabama, has been separated from her EMT husband, Dave, for two months. Their Chinese summer cruise is a last-ditch effort to get back together and allow Jenny to scatter the ashes of her half-Chinese childhood companion, Amanda Ruth, mysteriously strangled in Alabama 12 years before. Memories of Amanda Ruth haunt Jenny: as young girls they’d become physically attracted and were discovered making love one day in a boathouse by Amanda Ruth’s angry Chinese father. On the cruise, while Dave sleeps in the cabin with irksome indifference, Jenny meets on deck a 53-year-old Australian, the suave Graham, who is counting his last effective months before Lou Gehrig’s disease immobilizes him—and who, it becomes clear, has Jenny pegged for a final, momentous favor. Over the course of many days, the boat approaches the Three Gorges, where the Yangtze has been dammed—eliminating much sea life and many villages, on the one hand, while, on the other, giving China the chance to perform marvelous engineering feats. The situation between Dave and Jenny deteriorates: Dave beds Stacy, a kooky young co-passenger who’s fleeing her own dependency demons, while Jenny and Graham fall into a passionate, natural intimacy. With affecting elegance, author Richmond (stories: The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, 2001) moves from Jenny’s past to her present, from her memories of (and guilt about) Amanda Ruth to her despairing hopes of saving her marriage—conflicts that are clarified against a perfidy-filled backdrop of Chinese double-speak. In a splendid close, Jenny, having lovingly executed her final favor for Graham, finds herself in an abandoned village with a blind old tea-seller who offers her, with eloquent finality, “the secret heart of China.”
Eloquently, the naïve American finds heroic fortitude in an ancient, ambiguous land.