Red Chamber, by Pauline Chen
18th Century Beijing, China comes to life in this retelling of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. Much of the book is set at the Rongguo mansion, owned by the Jia family. Lin Daiyu comes from the south of China to live with her uncle, cousins, and grandmother for a season. She meets her cousin Baoyu, the pampered son of the household, who is studying for exams, and Baoyu’s cousin Baochai, who befriends Daiyu. Baochai and Daiyu are both fond of Baoyu. Back in Beijing after caring for her father, Daiyu finds the atmosphere greatly changed, affected by family secrets, affairs, and marriage arrangements. Food, clothing, and daily life are all richly described, but some of the characters are not well developed, especially four young adult grandchildren of the family. The emperor’s death brings tragedy to the family, and some of the characters are disgraced, while others die from illness. This is not an especially happy book, but it is vividly written and memorable. Readers looking to immerse themselves in a different time and place will find this book hard to put down.
The Moonflower Vine, by Jetta Carleton
This morning a group gathered at the library to discuss this fifty-year-old novel, which was recently reprinted. It is the family saga of Callie and Matthew Soames and their daughters, moving back and forth in time from 1896 to the 1950s in rural Missouri. The group agreed that the book starts out very pleasantly, with three grown sisters and one grandson gathering with their retired parents at their Missouri farm for a few weeks in the summer, playing in the creek, making ice cream, and watching the moonflowers bloom in the evening.
Through the different sections of the book, each told from the viewpoint of a different character, we learn about the cracks in Matthew’s and Callie’s marriage. Matthew is a teacher and school superintendent, while Callie can hardly read. Eldest daughter Jessica once broke her parents’ hearts, while dutiful middle daughter Leonie wonders why her parents are content to spend summers on their farm, with no plumbing and old furniture, while their town house is up-to-date. Their wild younger sister comes to life, but we never really learn what she is thinking. Various young men, including a daring pilot, come in and out of the family circle, none entirely satisfactory, at least not to stern Matthew and loving Callie. Tragedy occurs, but life goes on, and we circle back to the girls’ annual summer trek back to the farm, from their unique lives as a farmer’s wife, teacher, and television producer in New York City. Everyone has secrets and occasionally feels the need to escape from the proper behavior a school superintendent expects from his family. So the sweet beginning of the book is a bit deceptive, just skimming the surface of the family’s real life. As the book moves back and forth in time, I was occasionally confused as when certain events took place.
None of the group had come across this novel before, long thought to be the only book by New York advertising writer and former dancer Carleton, who grew up in rural Missouri, but a manuscript has been found for another novel, and Clair de Lune will be published next month.