This book was fantastic. I loved it so much. It was a retelling of Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuequin which, according to the author, is an “18th century novel widely considered to be the most important work of fiction in the Chinese literary tradition”. I haven’t read the original (and I probably won’t as it’s a daunting 2500 pages long) but apparently Ms. Chen took a bit of artistic license to make the story a bit more concise. The result is a beautiful story which focuses on a few of the people who live in the same house.
Nutshell blurb: Two families live in a rather sizeable house and the story follows several people as they try to cope with the problems that result when people with different personalities live under one roof. The lives of these people are governed by a shrewd and domineering matriarch who puts the future of the family above the desires of the individuals.
Please note that there will be some spoilers below.
For some reason I could really identify with Xifeng (although I’ve certainly never experienced what she did) and her story moved me the most. She was smart, numerate, literate and oversaw the day-to-day running of the household. She was exceptionally good with the finances but she was somewhat feared by the other females in the house. In three years of marriage she could not produce a living child for her husband (after miscarrying once) so her man decides to take a concubine. The woman he takes happens to be Xifeng’s maid. These ladies have spent their entire lives together and it was incredibly humiliating for Xifeng. To make matters worse, the other woman ends up pregnant almost immediately. Xifeng must endure the disinterest of a husband who now has someone new whom he prefers and have the pregnancy flaunted in her face. It was really painful to read. I really wanted her to find some kind of happy ending which, of course, she doesn’t.
Another situation in the book that really made me sad was that two of the characters fell in love but were not allowed to marry. The guy really wanted to marry a certain girl, but the old bat of a matriarch refused and had him married off to someone else within the family. What made it moving was that there were no teary-eyed declarations of love or plots to run away together; just a calm acceptance of the inevitable. That’s the kind of thing that makes my heart ache.
At several points when I was reading this book, I would stop to tell my husband what was happening and he would ask me why I would want to read a book that made me so sad. (You might be asking the same thing.) The answer is that I love to wallow in emotion. When I’m angry, sad or happy (or any emotion in between) I really like to channel it, savour it and, essentially, marinate in it until I’m well and truly pickled. It’s a delicious feeling and it makes me so happy when a book (or film) can make me feel this way. Even when it’s something that makes me sad.
The one negative thing that I would say about this book is that I really and truly hate a narrative that is in the present tense. I find it really jarring and it took me about a quarter of the book to actually get into it. Once I was able to forget about it, I really got into the book and was able to appreciate it for the beautiful story that it is.