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Thursday, February 09, 2012

Cruel, But Lovely, Tale of Contradictions Brings 1930s Shanghai to Life

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As the second daughter in a traditional Chinese family, comparatively little is expected of 17-year-old Xiao Feng. Unlike her older sister, she will not be required to take lessons on how to speak, dress, dance and flirt. Feng needn't be beautiful or charming or impressive in any way—it is not she who will feel the pressure of marrying well to ensure the social standing of her family. Since the eyes of society really are not on her, Feng is free to dress like a peasant girl and spend her time roaming the gardens with her beloved grandfather.

When a cruel twist of fate turns the tables for Feng, she's forced into a marriage she doesn't want and for which she's wholly unprepared. Thrust into the secluded inner circle of the Sheng Family, Feng must learn to navigate this new world where tradition reigns alongside vicious squabbling, ambitious social climbing, and relentless, stifling boredom. Feng knows the only way to get her elders off her back is to bear the family an heir—a precious, sought-for son. As Feng struggles to please the Shengs, she must grapple with questions of duty, identity and how far a woman in her time and culture will go to find happiness.

It takes a gentle hand to produce a book like All the Flowers in Shanghai. A feminine hand, you might guess. But, you'd be wrong. The debut novel is the work of Duncan Jepson, a Eurasian filmmaker, who wrote the story as a way to explore the fierce, domineering role of a Chinese mother—the kind he might have had if his own hadn't immigrated to the U.K. in the 1950s. Through the eyes of Xiao Feng, the author brings the turmoil of 1930s Shanghai to vivid life, not by focusing on the revolution happening without, but by examining the brutal, tumultuous world within. Although Feng's is a life of emotional hardship, ruthless subjugation, and eternal bitterness, it's described with such care and sensitivity that it seems almost lovely. Even when it most certainly is not. Thus, Jepson seems to say, are the contradictions of China, of tradition, of life itself. This deep, absorbing plunge into one woman's journey through such an existence left me both breathless and heartsick. All the Flowers of Shanghai may not be the most uplifting of novels, but it's a sweeping tale that stays in the reader's heart and mind long after the story ends.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for violence and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of All the Flowers of Shanghai from the generous folks at William Morrow (an imprint of Harper Collins) and TLC Book Tours. Thank you!


  1. This sounds wonderful. I love Lisa See, Amy Tan and Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favorites. I think these kinds of books are "my thing." This was a great review!

  2. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    I'm so happy to find other bloggers in AZ. I already know a few but it is always great to know there are more out there. :)

  3. I wanted to like this one more than I ended up doing. Nice review.

  4. I think the author's reasons for writing the book are fascinating - I love the idea of exploring what one's life MIGHT have been like.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


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