A Map for the Missing, by Belinda Huijuan Tang

When he gets the call that his father is missing, Yitian hasn’t been back to his home village in Anhui, China for more than a decade. I don’t he’d be able to explain why he leaves his wife and his job at an unnamed American university to get on a plane and go help find the man. Over the course of A Map for the Missing, by Belinda Huijuan Tang, we learn what would compel Yitian to travel back to the place that holds his worst memories. We also learn about the forces and chances that can derail us from our chosen paths in life.

Years before he became an assistant professor at an American university, Yitian was the son of poor, rural farmers. He’s not a strong worker and, instead of going to the fields, Yitian would rather listen to his grandfather’s stories about the history of China. His hard-bitten father loathes Yitian for his preferences. And Yitian’s life might have gone on like that—hard labor, abusive home life, no future—if it weren’t for the announcement that the gaokao would finally be held again. These national college entrance exams had been suspended since the Cultural Revolution. If Yitian can score well enough on the gaokao, he can go to university and escape the Tang Family Villages. And if his friend, Hanwen, a sent-down teenager from Shanghai, can score well enough, perhaps she can leave the villages, too, and return to her mother.

Hongcun, a traditional village in Anhui (Image via Wikicommons)

A Map for the Missing bounced back and forth between 1993—when Yitian returns to China to help look for his father—and the late 1970s and early 1980s—when Yitian is still a teenager dreaming of becoming a scholar. As the narrative shifts in time, we see that life is never a straight line. Yitian has pinballed through his entire life, responding to the actions of others and being bounced off of his previous trajectory. For example, he ended up in America because the head of his department at university in Beijing recommended him. He married his wife because she initiated contact. He passed the gaokao because Hanwen badgered him into studying. Yitian hardly has to make choices at all. And, if you look closely, you can see how other characters similarly pinball through their lives in response to someone else pushing them off course.

A missing father is just a catalyst in A Map for the Missing. The real story, I think, is about the loneliness people can feel when they believe that no one else really understands them. No one in this story shares their stories with each other. When a character learns about another’s past—and, hence, why they are the way they are—it’s a revelation. My impression of most of the characters in A Map for the Missing is that they are all presenting one version of themselves to the world while keeping their thoughts and emotions private. None of them can make themselves vulnerable enough to talk about the things that really matter. And so, as they all ricochet around each other, opportunities for happiness and love and understanding appear and vanish and reappear. This is an emotionally complex novel. I’d recommend it to readers who like deep psychological portraits in interesting settings.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, by Jamie Ford

Trigger warning for depictions of rape, racism, and abusive relationships.

The Bible tells us that the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son. But what about the mothers and daughters? Jamie Ford asks that very question in The Many Daughters of Afong Moy. Afong Moy is a real historical figure, believed to be the first Chinese woman to come to America. Newspapers in the 1830s wrote about her appearances as a traveling “exhibit,” in which she would sing and show her four-inch-long bound feet. From this inspiration, Ford imagines a series of female descendants who are haunted by trauma that compounds over the generations. Unfortunately, this interesting premise suffers from inadequate character development and a plot that races along too quickly to properly explore ideas and questions.

Afong Moy, at least in this book, seems like a person born to suffer. Instead of being able to marry the man she loves, she is given away in marriage to a man who has actually died. (Moy’s family can’t, for some reason, go back on the agreement with the other family.) Another of her dead fiance’s wives offers her an out: go to America. This rescue quickly turns sour as the people she was sent to end up exhibiting her as a curiosity. Things get even worse from here. Afong’s experiences—rape, exploitation, silencing—become the template for the lives of a series of descendants we meet in 1900s San Francisco, 1920s England, 1940s Myanmar, and Seattle in the 2010s and 2040s. In a sense, the racing plot might be a blessing in disguise because we are rarely given enough time with each of these women to bond with them.

An image of Moy from The Pittsburgh Gazette, 1836 (Image via Wikicommons)

We spend the most time with Dorothy, Afong’s descendant in a climate-ravaged Seattle of the mid-2040s. Dorothy’s homelife with her schmuck of a husband is just as tempestuous as the weather outside. The only bright spot is her daughter (we are told more than shown how precocious she is). Dorothy is afflicted with a depression that she can’t shake and can’t explain. After all other avenues have been explored—and with the pressure of possibly losing custody of her daughter—Dorothy tries an experimental treatment that claims to unlock past traumas. And by past traumas, the researcher means Dorothy’s and all her ancestors’ traumas. The ideas is that these traumas have been embedded in her DNA and the only way Dorothy can learn to deal with her inchoate feelings is to confront all of them.

The most interesting parts of The Many Daughters of Afong Moy come when Dorothy’s treatment begins to grant her access to her ancestors’ experiences. This mostly unexplained element of science fiction turns into a way for Dorothy to right some historic wrongs, if she can find enough courage in herself. It’s fun to watch. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was too little, too late. I felt like I was being whisked through a slide show of anti-Chinese racism and sexism over the centuries rather than engaging with realistic characters. If the plot had slowed down enough for more of the descendants to become more than waypoints, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. That said, I wonder if a slower plot could’ve been supported by characters that didn’t have enough individuality to feel distinct from each other. Although there were interesting parts, I think The Many Daughters of Afong Moy just doesn’t live up to its premise.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

The Wedding Party, by Liu Xinwu

Wherever you are, weddings are a big deal. Families pull out all the stops to keep up appearances (and mostly within the constraints of their budget). The bride and groom are feted with good food and gifts. Guests, too, partake in the bounty so that they can spread the word about what a good time was had by all. And I imagine that, once it’s all over, the hosts breathe out a huge sigh of relief. Given the cultural importance of such an event, it’s not surprising that Liu Xinwu uses a wedding in a cramped siheyuan in Beijing to not only explore the push and pull of wedding traditions in The Wedding Party, but also the tangled relationships of the siheyuan‘s inhabitants, friends, relatives, and coworkers. This brilliant novel—excellently translated by Jeremy Tiang—is a whole world in 400 pages.

In a siheyuan shared by (as far as I can tell) at least six families located near the landmark Drum and Bell Towers, Auntie Xue and her husband are hosting the wedding of their youngest son. They’ve hired a promising young chef to prepare a series of dishes for the wedding banquet. (The food in this novel is briskly described in a way that, nonetheless, made my mouth water.) They invite several of the neighbors, a manager or two, and the bride’s Seventh Aunt (there to make sure that the bride will be treated well in the Xue household). Over the course of one day, Auntie Xue sweats bullets trying to make sure that everything goes according to plan and that Seventh Aunt can bring a good report back to the bride’s family. This means that she has to downplay the drunken boisterousness of a family acquaintance, content with Seventh Aunt’s nitpicking, assuage the bride’s materialism, explain away the chef’s secrets—until it all blows up near the end of The Wedding Party.

From this event, plots spiral out as the narrator’s perspective introduces us to a huge cast of characters. Nearly every chapter is like a novel itself in that Liu gives us character studies, backstories, and a lot of post-Liberation* Chinese history up through 1982 (when the novel is set). I had to take my time with this book because it is dense. This is not a complaint. I was absolutely fascinated by Liu’s history and character studies. The Wedding Party is a slice-of-life novel that definitely lives up to the metaphor. As each chapter spotlights a different character, we get to see what motivates them and how they intersect with the Xue wedding. We also see how many of them live in their rooms at the siheyuan: whether they have to stretch every coin until it screams or if they’re well off, whether they long for the old days or if they’ve embraced Western fashions, their struggles at work or in their love lives, their hobbies, and so much more.

I’ve read a few books about life in China, past and present, but many of them are set during the deadliest times in the country’s history. These stories need to be told, of course, but The Wedding Party—set almost a decade after the end of the Cultural Revolution—takes place during a relatively peaceful time and the plot can therefore focus on daily life without the threat of death or denunciation. I highly recommend this book to readers who like fiction with heavy dollops of history and culture, or who want to see a day in the life of ordinary Chinese people.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

*I’m using the language used by the characters. Others might have a different name for the end of the Chinese Civil War.

The entrance to a siheyuan, off of a hutong in Beijing (Image via Wikicommons)

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

In the waning days of the Yuan Empire, a girl whose original name we never learn takes her dead brother’s name and marches away from her famine-stricken village to claim her brother’s great fate, too. Using that starting point and a lot of real history, Shelley Parker-Chan weaves a story about the rise of the Ming Dynasty and the fall of Mongol rule in China in She Who Will Become the Sun. There are battles, miracles, lots of betrayals, and even more determination to rule whatever is left after the Mongols are driven back north.

Our protagonist is one of millions of peasants in rural China when bad luck kills her father and brother, her last surviving relatives. Before their deaths, the father took his son, Zhu Chongba, to a fortune-teller. The fortune-teller reveals that Zhu Chongba’s fate is to be great (no other details are provided). Our protagonist sneaks in a question about her own fate; he tells her that her fate is to be nothing. It’s little wonder that our protagonist—who has been doing her best to not starve to death—takes her brother’s name and heads off to one of the few places that has food: a monastery. Taking her brother’s name isn’t enough for Zhu (as she’s called for the rest of the book) to get into the monastery. She also has to hide her gender. Zhu ends up suppressing her female body and habits so much that she fools everyone.

Zhu has many good years at the monastery until a Yuan general shows up and burns it to the ground, in revenge for an insult delivered years ago. This general becomes Zhu’s sinister shadow for the rest of the book. General Ouyang is also masquerading as a man except, in his case, he’s doing his best to living up to the expectations of Mongol manhood after being forcibly castrated as a teenager. After Zhu winds up in the middle of the Red Turban army and a miracle occurs that makes it look like she’s divinely blessed, Ouyang is usually the one on the other side of the battlefield from her. Both of them want big things—so most of the plot revolves around both of them scheming among their supposed allies at the same time that they keep facing off against one another. This book was so much fun to read!

I didn’t know about the history when I started reading She Who Will Become the Sun. In fact, I didn’t know that this book was based on history until some names started to ping loose scraps of knowledge tucked away in my brain from something else I read. A little Googling and a little reading on Wikipedia taught me that Parker-Chan wrote her story in the gaps about what we know about the last decade or so of the Yuan dynasty’s rule. By the end of the book, I was in love with the story. Too bad I have to wait for the next installments to see how the author spins the facts into her absolutely gripping fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Library of Legends, by Janie Chang

After a lifetime of hiding under an assumed name, Hu Lian’s life has turned around with a full scholarship to the (fictional) Minghua University. But when the Japanese begin to steamroll across the former Chinese Empire, the university is evacuated inland. Only thousands of miles can keep the students and the university’s priceless (also fictional) Library of Legends, the remaining section of an ancient encyclopedia that collects China’s myths, folklore, and legends. The Library of Legends, by Janie Chang, is based on historic events; Chinese universities upped stakes and traveled for miles to safety, taking irreplaceable documents with them. Chang adds supernatural elements to this harrowing tale of historical survival as her protagonists are accompanied by fleeing mythical city gods, river guardians, and more.

Lian is one of my favorite kinds of protagonists. First, she is very observant. She sees important things that other people miss in their hurry to get on with whatever they’re doing. Second, she wants to do the right thing no matter how characters try to get her to bend her own rules. At the beginning of their exodus, Lian worries about finding her mother. Lian’s scholarship divided them. All she knows is that her mother will try to get to the foreign Settlement in Shanghai, one of the few safe places on China’s east coast. But as the miles roll past and the students and faculty put the invading Japanese in their rear view, Lian gets caught up in China’s other great fight: the efforts of the Nationalists to squash the nascent Communists. The university’s agent of the Juntong, who work to root out Communists, blackmails Lian to spy on her friends and inform him about any Communist activity.

Chinese refugees on the road during the Second Sino-Japanese War/World War II (Image via ResearchGate)

Meanwhile, Lian’s new friend, Shao, is in the middle of his own story. Shao’s servant, called Sparrow, reveals herself as a servant of the Queen of Heaven to one of Shao and Lian’s more enlightened professors. Centuries ago, Sparrow bargained with the Queen of Heaven to accompany her great love through his various lives. The bad news for Sparrow is that Shao never remembers her or his previous lives. At the same time, Sparrow is passing on the message to every supernatural creature and being she comes across to let them know that the Queen of Heaven will keep her gates open for one year. Everyone is welcome back if they can make it in time. Lian occasionally glimpses these beings, though she doubts herself for a long time.

There is so much going on in The Library of Legends that my small but overstuffed summary barely scratches the surface of what happens in this riveting, imaginative novel. Chang uses history, legend, and solid character development to build a terrific story about obligation and purpose. What do we owe each other? Which side is the right one to fight for? How do we deal with feelings of unrequited love? All of this creates plenty of narrative tension against an already high stakes background. This book is an incredible read, especially for readers of historical fiction who like the odd touch of the supernatural.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Red Oblivion, by Leslie Shimotakahara

Is it possible to have a relationship with one’s parents that isn’t loaded with emotional baggage? Those of us who are lucky have many more good memories than painful ones. Jill Lau has plenty of problems with her father but, in Leslie Shimotakahara’s Red Oblivion, she discovers that there are whole skeletons in her family’s closet that she didn’t even know about.

At the beginning of Red Oblivion, Jill and her sister are on their way to Hong Kong after getting the call that every child dreads: the call that informs them that their father is in the hospital and might not make it out. The sisters went to college in Toronto and never went home again, grateful beyond words to be away from their cold, relentless parents. As soon as we meet Lau père, all of Jill’s concerns make sense. Her father has planned out Jill’s whole life, regardless of the fact that she’s spent more than a decade in another country.

Jill quickly finds out that her father’s collapse was caused by some photographs someone had sent him from mainland China. The photos don’t do much more than hint at old secrets. They give enough of a hint, though, that Jill starts to question her father’s stories about his past as a man who survived the Cultural Revolution with a bit of luck to reinvent himself as a self-made business man. When her father stonewalls, Jill starts to ask more questions—especially when she receives her own mysterious parcel in the mail.

Red Oblivion is the story of a daughter wrestling with her father’s expectations, her sense of duty, feelings of being trapped, and her angry bewilderment about her father’s real past. It is a moving—and deeply honest—portrait of a family that desperately needs to let go of its baggage, so that they can move into a better future.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to children of elderly parents, who struggle with their feelings of obligation.

Fu Ping, by Wang Anyi

So many works of historical fiction revolve around the limited roles women had for, well, most of recorded history. In fiction, we see women break through these limits to find careers or true love or adventure, etc In Wang Anyi’s Fu Ping (translated by Howard Goldblatt), we are presented with a similar scenario. The titular character, Fu Ping, has traveled to Shanghai from her village after sort of making a deal to marry a young man. She doesn’t particularly want to marry him. She doesn’t particularly want to marry anyone. She would, as the Scrivener said, “prefer not to.”

Fu Ping is an orphan with few options in mid-twentieth century China. Her parents died when she was young. Relatives took her in, but they were not particularly loving. She was maid/nanny/laundress/odd job woman around the house. It’s little wonder that she takes an offer from a woman called Nainai to marry her adopted grandson. Until the arrangement can be formalized, Fu Ping will live in Shanghai with Nainai, sharing her work as nanny/housekeeper/cook for a well-off family. Fun Ping is quiet, very reluctant to reveal much of herself. The novel conspires with her to keep her personality and history opaque by spending most of its words showing us everything about Nainai, the other servants in their apartment building and neighborhood, a friend of the girls Nainai cares for, and so many others. We see Fu Ping mostly through their eyes. Because Fu Ping doesn’t talk much, all of these other characters ascribe all kinds of feelings and motives to Fu Ping based on her slightest responses. This might be funny if they all weren’t so wrong about her.

So much of Fu Ping revolves around family obligations. Nainai adopts a boy to be her grandson because she wants someone to take care of her when she is too old to work. A neighbor, Taitai, is a formidable matriarch who stage manages the careers and marriages of two generations of her family. (She only stops when one of her grandsons out-stubborns her.) But Fu Ping’s family weren’t well off to give her an education—or even much of a childhood—when she is orphaned. Later in the book, we see that part of Fu Ping’s reluctance to marry is because she doesn’t want to get involved with a sprawling family where everyone is pulling strings. The system of filial piety failed her; why should she prop it up by marrying into a family that only wants her for her ability to work?

In the face of tremendous cultural pressure (politeness is almost weaponized in her world), Fu Ping is quietly, infuriatingly subversive. She avoids questions about a wedding date. She neglects to make plans. She even disappears a couple of times when Nainai and others turn up the heat too much. As is so often the case, I enjoyed Fu Ping and its eponymous protagonist a lot more when I stopped trying to guess what was going to happen or where the book was going to go. (Mysteries have encouraged bad habits.) The more I read, I sympathized with Fu Ping more and more. I wished so much for her that someone would stop making plans for her and just ask Fu Ping what she wants.

On the other hand, I loved right from the beginning the way that Wang recreated mid-century Shanghai. This book is full of rich detail about food, commerce, education, culture, tradition, and even the various accents and dialects Fu Ping hears as she moves around the growing city. More than once, I felt like the book was the closest thing I’ve ever found to a textual time machine. The only issue I had with the book is that it either needed a little more editing or maybe some more careful translating. There are some grammatical errors (possibly proofreading oversights) and some awkward phrases that jarred me.

Fu Ping is one of the least depressing novels I’ve read from a Chinese author. There are some sad moments, but I was so interested in what was going on around Fu Ping that I didn’t feel like I was being pummeled by tragedy the way I did when I read Red Sorghum, by Mo Yan. I also had the highly original puzzle of Fu Ping to figure out. I’m not entirely sure I figured everything out, what with all I don’t know about China and Chinese cultures. I would definitely recommend this book to readers who would like to dip a toe into Chinese literature.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A row of shikumen houses in Shanghai, a style frequently referenced in the novel (Image via Wikicommons)

The Nail House, by Gregory Baines

Almost five years ago, I bought a house for myself. I painted. I bought appliances and furniture. I planted a back garden. I have plans to makeover some of the rooms in the future. All of this is to make this house even more of a home for myself. There are few places I feel more comfortable and relaxed, to be honest. I’m so proud of myself for working hard and saving enough money to get this place. So I can understand why the patriarch of the Yi family does not want to leave his home, in spite of the offers from a development company that has bought up the properties around the family home and is in the process of building a high rise apartment complex. In The Nail House, by Gregory Baines, we see the battle for a small plot of land in an unnamed Chinese city from the perspective of Zhen Yi and Lindon, an Australian man who has been hired to negotiate that last land acquisition.

A nail house is the Chinese term for a real estate holdout. The name comes from the way that that these houses stick up like nails that need to be banged down. By the time that the novella opens, things have escalated to the point where Zhen’s father is under siege and the family is starting to crack under the strain. Zhen is relieved to get out, as she is moving in with her fiancé in a few days. The quotes from The Art of War at the beginning of each chapter heighten the imagery. Lindon, who has come to China to get away from his acrimonious divorce and to get a big pay out, is not prepared for what he has been hired to do. Nor is he prepared for the sheer amount of alcohol it takes to do big business in China.

A “nail house” in Chongking, c. 2007 (Image via Wikicommons)

Zhen and Lindon are thrown together through a series of coincidental meetings. Lindon is so out of his depth that Zhen takes a grudging pity on the hapless foreigner, who is drunk to the point of vomiting in the streets far too often. While the two keep bumping into each other, Lindon tries to work out his feelings and Zhen struggles with the path her life is taking. Zhen’s life is following an expected path towards marriage, a better apartment, and stability. Because this is a novella, all of this happens at a breakneck pace. We start with a modern-day siege, drift into sort of a romance, before ending up with an explosive, surprising conclusion.

I think it only took me a couple of hours to read The Nail House. Sadly, this wasn’t quite enough for me. I wanted more of Lindon’s maturation as a person. I definitely wanted more of Zhen’s more complicated journey and the battles over the Yi’s nail house. That said, I found The Nail House very satisfying. I will absolutely recommend this to readers looking for a quick read with plenty of psychological depth.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Northern Girls, by Sheng Keyi

Trigger warning for rape.

Even though Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls (translated by Shelly Bryant) is bookended by descriptions of protagonist Xiaohong’s larger-than-usual breasts, Xiaohong is more than her anatomy—no matter what the numerous men who ogle or try to trick her think. None of these men seem to learn how complicated she is or how she operates in a city that doesn’t seem to want her around. I daresay readers will be surprised, as I was, even though we spend more than 300 pages with her, at how Xiaohong constantly rises back up after tragedy and adversity. The woman is a goddamn phoenix.

After her sister discovers that sixteen-year-old Xiaohong has been having an affair with her brother-in-law, Xiaohong departs for the megacity of Shenzhen with her best friend to make a new life for herself. Once the pair arrive in the city, it seems like they’ve stepped into a dangerous comedy of errors. First, there is the fact that there is a thin line (often perforated) between having a “respectable” job and sex work. At several places that Xiaohong and Sijiang end up, women do both to make money. In fact, at some of the places they work—like a salon/massage parlor or a karaoke bar—every customer just assumes that the women they find working there do both. A couple of times Xiaohong accidentally does sex work when her partners offer her money after the act; it turns out that Xiaohong just likes to have sex.

It isn’t until Xiaohong lands a job at a cheap-ish hotel that her luck starts to turn. Where before, she had to deal with government bureaucracy (designed to keep people from migrating around China where possible) and men who think she’s a sex worker, the hotel offers a chance to build up some capital and space to think about a future. The first half of the book is all about struggle, the second is about the possibility of moving up in the world. That said, there is always the possibility that something will send Xiaohong back to the ranks of shampoo girls, massage girls, and sex workers. There’s also the fact that Xiaohong’s large breasts often mean that she’s only viewed as an object by most of the men in her world; very few people see Xiaohong as a person because of those breasts.

Along with the themes of sexism and sexuality, Northern Girls often meditates on the theme of cheapness. Even though China is supposed to be at least somewhat communist, it’s clear that in Shenzhen, the name of the game is to make as much money as possible at whatever business one is running as cheaply as possible. Salaries are low and docked for ridiculous reasons. Jobs are held tenuously and often easily lost. Because it’s hard to make money honestly, sex work sometimes becomes necessary or desirable to women who don’t want to work in drudgery. It also means that Xiaohong has no scruples about scams and very little loyalty to her employers. Why would she? They rarely do her favors. Thankfully, Xiaohong had good luck in finding friends and rescuers when she really needs them. Xiaohong is loyal to people who do her a good turn. And, it often seems, that having connections is the only way to get ahead in the wild, cutthroat city of Shenzhen.

One quick note about the translation. Bryant does a very good job translating, but there were some passages of dialogue that seemed a little flat or unrealistic. I’m not sure sure if this is an artifact of the writing style or the author’s occasional clumsiness with dialogue. On the one hand, this book was written for a Chinese-language audience, who will have different expectations and tastes in literature. On the other, I might just be overly picky. I’m also not sure if I misunderstood the ending (I am almost positive I am) because of the translation was unclear or if (more likely) I’m missing cultural references that would be clear to someone reading this book in the original who is more versed with Chinese-language culture and literature than I am. This is the tricky thing about reading books in translation. It’s sometimes hard to fully understand what’s going on, either because of its foreignness or because the translator needed to take a firmer hand to make the author understood in another language—but that’s a whole other blog post.

Readers, I inhaled this book. Even though there were parts that made me flinch or fret for Xiaohong, I was hooked by her story. She’s not like anyone I’ve ever met in fiction before. She has no over all goals for her future, like so many of the strivers I see in Western fiction. It seems like all she wants is security and something a little better than what she has. She also bucks the expectations of her hypocritical society when it comes to sex. Xiaohong is frequently slut shamed, yet men are almost expected to be highly sexual. I also loved the way that she cares for the people who were kind to her. Xiaohong’s friendship is a powerful thing in a society where one needs every bit of help one can get, but her kindness goes beyond that, I think. Xiaohong’s caring for her friends—especially her female friends—is not about her getting ahead. Her friendship is genuine and I deeply admire that.

The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham

Kitty Fane is a terrible judge of character. For most of her life, she believes in the façades people present to her. She like charming people who know how to be amusing. She never bothers to really get to know anyone who requires an effort. In The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham, Kitty learns the errors of her ways in brutal fashion during the middle of a cholera outbreak in southern China. The Painted Veil is one of the most emotionally honest books I’ve ever read. All of Kitty’s warts are on full display in this book and nothing is easy. I was completely hooked.

In a brief preface, Maugham discusses his inspiration for The Painted Veil: an old Italian poem about an adulterous woman punished by her husband in a creative, terrible manner. In the poem, the adulterous woman in sent to a place where she will catch a fatal illness. Her husband doesn’t kill her outright or cause a scandal. It’s chilling. It’s still chilling when that same scenario more or less plays out in this novel. We meet Kitty while she’s in the throes of an affair with Charles Townsend, a bureaucrat in the British government in Hong Kong. They declare that they are in love but, as we soon learn, Kitty is more in love than Charles is. For him, the affair is one of many he has had. He falls in love easily. For Kitty, however, Charles seems like the perfect man—much better for her than her actual husband, Walter. Kitty only married Walter because he proposed at the right time. Her mother was unbearable, who constantly chided her for waiting too long to get married. Her plainer younger sister was about to get married. There were no other offers on the horizon. So, Kitty married a bacteriologist and sailed off to Hong Kong even though she does not like him.

But when Walter finds out about the affair, he gives Kitty an ultimatum. Either she goes with him inland to a town suffering a cholera epidemic or he takes Kitty and Charles to court for an acrimonious divorce, which would ruin Charles’ career. There’s another option, though. Walter says he will give Kitty a quiet divorce if Charles’ wife agrees to divorce him and the two can marry. Kitty is delighted to be offered an out, but only until Charles reveals his true nature. Charles was never going to do anything to damage his career or cozy set up in Hong Kong. Seeing no other option, Kitty goes with Walter into the middle of an epidemic.

The poem Maugham references in his preface is not the only literary allusion in The Painted Veil. At the emotional climax of the novel, Walter quotes Oliver Goldsmith’s “An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.” The poem is about a moment of blind violence when a dog strikes out at a man and its consequences. This book hinges on an act of revenge that has huge ramifications for Kitty and Walter. When I read the poem, shortly after finishing The Painted Veil, I was hit with a wave of agonized surprise at what was at the heart of Walter’s actions and all that came from them. The irrational bite of a hurt animal is a good analogy for what Walter felt when he realized that the frivolous woman he married was cheating on him and he formulated his ultimatum.

The Painted Veil is a brilliant study of characters: Kitty’s, Walter’s, Charles’, and others. Kitty receives the most attention. We learn about her background and her parents. Perhaps Kitty really couldn’t help the way she was, as she protests a time or two. So it’s deeply satisfying when Kitty finally learns how to see the true worth of people in spite of their first impressions or appearance. Kitty also learns to get past her racism towards Chinese people, thankfully. (Kitty is truly awful at times.) This novel is short, in terms of page length, but it unspooled over weeks. Nothing feels rushed. Maugham also includes a few Orientalist touches when a character explains Taoist philosophy to Kitty, but these didn’t do much more than make me raise my eyebrows. That said, these touches help push Kitty towards being a better person, who doesn’t take people at face value any more.

It’s a pity that she couldn’t have learned to do that earlier. But if this book had had a happier ending. however, it wouldn’t have had as strong an impact on me. I love books that forgo happy endings when it would have felt forced. After all that time spent showing us all the unpleasant corners of Kitty’s mind, a happy ending would have been dishonest. Above all else, this is a book about emotional honesty.