Set in 1930s China, Yip’s latest intrigue follows a runaway “ghost wife” as she finds a place in the world amid imperial loyalists and the rumblings of revolution.
At 17, Spring Swallow is about to become a “ghost wife,” married to an unborn baby (he died during a miscarriage) and tied to her “husband’s” family. She runs away on her wedding day and is lucky enough to be taken in by Aunty Peony, who operates an embroidery studio. Spring Swallow lives and works there with the other sad-story girls, Purple, Leilei and Little Doll, while the imperious Aunty Peony teaches the ancient art of Su embroidery. They have a big commission from Peking and just six months to finish it, but Spring Swallow bristles at Aunty Peony’s rules—among them a vow of celibacy—and finds solace in climbing a nearby mountain. She writes poetry on the rocks and is surprised to find that someone has written back. She and Shen Feng finally meet, fall in love and are separated in short order—he’s a revolutionary on a mission. Meanwhile, Spring Swallow has been sneaking into Aunty Peony’s room and rummaging through her things. She discovers a shocking secret: Aunty Peony was an embroiderer for the royal household and mistress of the last emperor of China. After a series of tragedies, Spring Swallow is once again destitute but is hired by an embroidery shop whose owner wants her for a daughter-in-law. But her new husband is a scoundrel, and after a miscarriage (of Shen Feng’s baby), she is thrown out again, quickly finding a home with the Catholic missionaries and the love of an American priest.
A runaway train of a plot, in which our heroine suffers four marriages, two pregnancies, three tragic deaths and too many coincidences in a two-year span to be believable, yet the narrative has a certain cheeky, boundless energy that propels the reader to a gratifying conclusion.