A young Chinese woman travels to London on a student visa and falls in love with a much older English bachelor.
New in town and eager to learn English so she can better help her family run their shoe factory back in rural China, lonely 23-year-old Zhuang (“Z”) meets her unnamed 40-something lover at an artsy German film. The attraction between them is immediate, but it is her literal interpretation of his “be my guest” invitation that has her moving into his Hackney flat within a week. A sculptor specializing in pained-looking human forms, he is also a vegetarian who, prior to Z, led a mostly gay life. His bisexuality seems to bother her less than the fact that he won’t eat pork, but he is initially delighted by her youth, naiveté and absolute dependence on him. There is much that Z does not understand about western culture, and her ever-improving ESL narration of London living is both fascinating and amusing, such as when she reads a Pet House magazine to improve her language skills. As the lovers settle into a domestic routine, their relationship deepens and she realizes that speaking his mother tongue won’t necessarily help her understand her broody Englishman. The existential angst that seems “noble” to her comes across as self-indulgent to the reader. For his part, he grows tired of Z’s neediness and encourages her to backpack around Europe, where she meets a series of men, but never stops thinking of him. Back in their shared flat, in between bouts of lovemaking, Z struggles to balance her practical life plans with her romantic ideals, and by the bittersweet conclusion it is clear that she has grown in ways that neither she nor her lover could have ever imagined. Guo’s U.S. debut quickly overcomes the early chapters’ self-conscious winsomeness to become a compelling and moving tale of first love.
An often-charming exploration of learning, love and loss.