Never published during her life time, Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions is a highly autobiographical novel of a woman’s complicated life from the 1920s to the 1950s. The novel feels unfinished, and the nonlinear style doesn’t help. To me, Little Reunions is a dizzying look back at a life full of disappointment, insecurity, unrequited love, and guilt. I realize this might not sound like much of a recommendation, but I did like how this novel touched on so many ideas without feeling overstuffed. I feel that I’ve experienced an entire life while reading this book, which is the most I can really ask from a book.
Julie (clearly a stand-in for the author) grows up as an after thought in her dramatic mother’s life. Julie’s mother, Rachel, left the family repeatedly to travel around the world. Men are in and out of Rachel’s life. Once her parents get divorced, Julie only sees her mother when Rachel decides to stop by Shanghai on her way to somewhere else. In the first parts of the book, until Julie (and I) started to understand Rachel better, Rachel seems like a very selfish person who uses men to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed. It’s only later that Julie learns that Rachel was sleeping with these men to also “pay” doctor bills and school fees. Once Julie starts to embark on her own affairs, Rachel starts to make a lot more sense and become, at least as much as Rachel allows, an object of pity.
Julie and Rachel’s relationship forms a spine for the rest of this book to hang from. While that relationship evolves, Julie grows up in the middle of a sprawling family of strivers and moochers. Her talent as a writer develops. Slowly, Julie comes into her own and becomes the protagonist in her own life. But what a sad life it is! The man she first falls in love with cannot give up the other women he wants. Her second love cannot marry her because her bad reputation would ruin his. The complications of family and society seem to conspire to make it impossible for Julie to have simple happiness.
My biggest frustration with this book is Julie’s opaqueness as a character. Although she is the center of this book, Julie develops an impenetrable reserve to protect herself from disappointment, guilt, and the other negative emotions her mother and lovers elicit in her. This opacity could read as selfishness, akin to Rachel’s when we first met her, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw a character who found a way to emotionally protect herself as a child only to build up such thick armor that she couldn’t break out of it when she was an adult. Still, I wish I had been able to see beneath that armor. I feel like I understand everyone in this book except Julie; with her, I’m just guessing.
Little Reunions is my first experience reading Eileen Chang, one of the giants of twentieth century Chinese literature. Although this book wasn’t officially done and had to be published from a draft, I think it gives a good sense of the author’s daring when it comes to talking about sex and love. I marvel at her sharp observations of her characters (Julie excepted). I also enjoyed the subtlety of how this book was built. Like Julie’s, my judgment of characters changed from the beginning to the end almost without my realizing it. The more I knew about them, the easier it was to see why they behaved as they did. The realizations sneak up on you and I love books that can teach me something without my being aware of it.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 16 January 2018.