“In the small southern town of Chin-kiang, two young girls from very different worlds collide and become inseparable companions. Willow is hardened by poverty and fearful for her future; Pearl is the daughter of a Christian missionary who desperately wishes she was Chinese too. Neither could have foreseen the transformation of the little American girl embarrassed by her blonde hair into the Nobel Prize-winning writer and one of China’s modern heroines, Pearl S. Buck. When the country erupts in civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, Pearl and Willow are brutally reminded of their differences. Pearl’s family is forced to flee the country and Willow is punished for her loyalty to her ‘cultural imperialist’ friend. And yet, in the face of everything that threatens to tear them apart, the paths of these two women remain intimately entwined.”
I’ve always had a special love for Anchee Min. Empress Orchid was the book I wrote about on my personal statement for university; it’s one that I’ve read over and over without getting tired; I’ve lent (or attempted to lend) it to friends and family so they can appreciate its literary brilliance. The Last Empress didn’t hit me in the same way that its predecessor did, but I was eager to read Pearl of China and Anchee Min, true to form, has not disappointed.
Protagonist Willow Yee (a character Min created that is an amalgamation of the close Chinese friends Pearl had) narrates the story of her relationship with Pearl S. Buck, writer of The Good Earth (another old favourite) amongst others. Typical traits of Min’s writing style are here, including her creation of well-crafted characters that grow to remarkable ages and have flabbergasting resilience to the impoverished or enslaved surroundings they often find themselves in. Opulent landscapes contrast the beautiful simplicity of their lives. Min also has a great talent at describing the food in her books that leaves me feeling hungry!
The most interesting thing I found about Pearl of China was seeing the events that shaped the life of Lady Yehonala in Empress Orchid – for example, the Boxer Rebellion – from a completely different angle. The only downside for me, here and in all of Min’s novels, is her tendency to reveal things that happen in the future – like Willow not realising that when Pearl moved away it would be the last time she would ever see her. I think if Min built up the suspense more it would make for a more dramatic and emotional read.
All in all, I really enjoyed Pearl of China. Written with attention to flawless detail, it paints a vivid picture for the reader. Even though it’s fictional, it, and Min’s other books, has strengthened my knowledge of that area of history and encouraged me to do further research. Definitely one to try, but I’d recommend reading Empress Orchid and The Last Empress first.
Many thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.