A leisurely saga exploring the closed society of privileged women in 18th-century Beijing, their loves, losses, friendships and character-forming private torments, based on a Chinese classic.
It’s all about marriage in Chen’s adult debut, an epic set within the bubble of the women’s community at Rongguo Mansion, lavish home to the Jia family, where barren wives, unpleasant wives and wrongly betrothed daughters mingle with servants and slaves. The fates of three women dominate: Daiyu, whose mother turned her back on her Jia family heritage; reserved Baochai, who has long hoped to wed sensitive Baoyu; and Xifeng, whose marriage to Lian founders on her inability to conceive. Lady Jia rules the household ruthlessly, fostering the marriage between Baochai and Baoyu even though the latter is in love with Daiyu. Xifeng, meanwhile, is supplanted when her servant becomes Lian’s second wife and is soon pregnant. Although external events rarely impinge, sudden catastrophe strikes—a palace coup strips the family of its wealth and deposits the menfolk in prison. Now the women struggle to survive, and some don’t. A pardon eventually restores order but not necessarily happiness.
Little new ground is broken here, but the writing is supple and Chen often touches notes of emotional depth.