In this dazzling debut, Pauline A. Chen draws the reader deep into the secret, exquisite world of the women's quarters of an aristocratic household, where the burnish of wealth and refinement mask a harsher truth: marriageable girls are traded like chattel for the family's advancement, and to choose to love is to risk everything.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-08-13
- Reviewer: Staff
YA author Chen's debut novel for adults is a modern retelling of Cao Xueqin's 18th-century Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber. While it doesn't hold a candle to the original in length or its Tolstoy-esque cast of characters, this revamped version retains much of its predecessor's spirit. Focusing mostly on three female characters—once sequestered 17-year-old Daiyu, who is shipped off to live with her unknown rich relatives in Beijing after her mother's death; ornery 23-year-old Xifeng, whose husband conspicuously cheats on her; and matronly18-year-old Xue Baochai, an earnest shadow of a girl in love with Baoyu, Daiyu's charming cousin—Chen (Peiling and the Chicken-Friend Christmas) plumps the epic tale full of lavish details of the palace, sumptuous feasts, and day-to-day minutiae, levitating whispered conversations overheard by the wrong parties, capricious scheming between family members, and gossip hidden beneath every elegant tapestry and beaded pillow to lofted heights. Aside from the entertaining love triangle between Daiyu, Baochai, and Baoyu, there's much to do about more serious matters, too—especially in the latter half of the novel, when political unrest in Beijing threatens to destroy the family's tenuous hierarchy. For those familiar with the original, there's also a different ending. Supplemental material includes an author's note, the Jia family tree, and a list of major characters. First printing: 60,000. (July)
An epic Chinese tale inspired by a classic
In The Red Chamber, a vivid, lively reimagining of the lengthy Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, Pauline A. Chen brings to life three unforgettable women trapped by class, time and circumstance.
Set in Beijing at the end of the 18th century—which is when all 2,500 pages of the original were written—the novel is the story of Daiyu, her cousin Baochai and her uncle’s wife, Xifeng.
Daiyu, raised in simple circumstances in the country, is sent to her uncle Jia Zheng’s mansion after her mother dies of consumption. Baochai and her mother and brother already live on the Jia estate, which for all intents and purposes is run by their tight-fisted, capable aunt Xifeng, who handles the money and is in charge of the servants. Picture Downton Abbey in early modern China, and you won’t be too far off the mark. It’s a way of life that has gone on for centuries, but political intrigue, combined with the Jias’ personal conflicts, threatens to bring the entire household to its knees.
The aging emperor is growing feeble, and whether or not the Jias will continue to bask in imperial favor depends upon his choice of successor. Inside the Jia home, the turmoil is just as great. Childless after several years of marriage, Xifeng learns that her husband is going to take another wife. Despising her helplessness within the concubine system, she grows bitter in her need for money and reckless in her search for affection. In the meantime, the close friendship formed by Baochai and Daiyu begins to erode as they both fall for Baoyu, the pampered heir of Jia Zheng.
Chen, who holds degrees from three Ivy League schools, is the author of the well-received children’s novel Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas. Her first novel for adults is skillfully written. Despite their Eastern origins, Chen’s enaging heroines seem like direct descendants of the doomed, repressed women of classic Western literature.