Yang’s (Shanghai Girl, 2001) novel follows Mo Mo, a precocious mixed-race girl, as she grows up amid the turmoil of 20th-century Communist China.
Readers follow Mo Mo as she moves to a new area, meets new friends, acclimates to school life, struggles to find and keep love and finally grows into a young woman of talent, determination and resolve. The girl’s mother is mercurial and capricious and her protectiveness of her daughter is matched by her frustration with the constraints of motherhood; when someone who could whisk her off to New York refuses to marry her, and when her career stalls, she blames Mo Mo. The reader experiences 20th-century China—the Cultural Revolution, the industrialization of the coastal regions and the transformation of Hong Kong—through Mo Mo’s struggles and triumphs and the novel progresses competently from episode to episode. Yang uses the constraints of life in Communist China—issues surrounding job choices, visas, curmudgeonly authorities and curtailed travel—to demonstrate the hardships for Mo Mo’s family, who live with more limited opportunities than those American readers likely grew up enjoying. This gives the book a pleasing, consistent tension that is unfortunately undercut by the main character’s passivity; when Mo Mo discovers her father’s true identity, she reacts with resignation to the realization that she knew him, a moment that could have been more effectively mined for drama. The novel is structured as an Asian woman recounting her life story to a Westerner, and as such brings to mind Arthur Golden’s massively successful Memoirs of a Geisha, especially considering the similarity of the two books’ titles. Despite these superficial likenesses, however, the protagonists of the novels are entirely different. And while Geisha gave a delicately crafted look at the exotic, Yang’s tale is more relatable, but not necessarily as exciting.
A dry coming-of-age tale of modern Chinese history that nevertheless provides a unique perspective on an underexplored era.