Falling Leaves by Adeline Yeh Mah
My challenge in reading this book was to to discover what was specific to its setting -- when it mostly seems to be a timeless Cinderella story . (and indeed, the author subsequently adapted it as such into a book for children)
The problem is --- that when a person feels pain --- the world shrinks to the location of that pain -- and not much can be observed about anything else.
And this girl grew up in a lot a pain -- as something of an orphan within her own large, wealthy family in Tianjin and Shanghai --that came under the control of an unusually wicked and cruel French/Chinese stepmother.
So .. though she grew up in interesting times (born 1938) - that saw foreign invasion, civil war, revolution, and cataclysmic social/cultural change-- the magnitude of these events pale beside the misery of the emotional neglect and abuse that she was feeling -- thanks to one very mean stepmother and the complicity of her father and siblings.
Which makes this a very self-centered book: see how I suffered --see how I triumphed -- and everything else becomes a dim shadow cast in the background --including some intriguing characters --like her grandfather and great aunt.
Her grandfather had built up a successful export business -- only to retire at about the age of 40 -- leaving everything in the control of his very talented son. But why did he do this ? Was he just sick of working? Did he want to devote his life to something else ? This remains a puzzle.
And her great aunt had an extraordinary career in finance -- beginning as a teller -- and eventually starting her own bank devoted strictly to women -- while living with a woman in a luxury apartment above the bank she had built. Did she identify herself as Lesbian ? How did she relate to the changing world around her -- other than, eventually, to have everything she built be taken away by the communists ?
And what about her father ? Obviously -- a very bright guy -- a wunderkind in business -- did everything else about the world really just confuse him? How did that nasty wife of his manage to hold on to him ? It couldn't have always been sexual attraction -- he could afford whatever he wanted -- and she wasn't young and sexy forever. He was Catholic -- did he take that seriously ? What did he really care about ? All this remains a mystery.
Somehow - the cruelty of the Japanese and the Communists and eventually the Red Guards -- just pale in comparison with that incorrigibly mean old stepmother -- who goes to the grave still hating and trying to hurt Cinderella -- even after Cinderella has grown up and found success with a medical career and a very loving, supportive husband.
Mother/daughter were a sadist/masochist team until death did them part.
"Stop it!" ---"Leave your mother alone!" --- "Stay away from that family" --- that's how I was talking back at the book in chapter after chapter ---- but still our poor author kept going back for more punishment -- still hoping to be accepted by parents who never really wanted her.
She often mentions her Confucian family values -- but so much of it seems to be about the money -- the inheritance of a (once) very large estate -- the distribution of which frames the story (i.e. in the first chapter --- Mom steals Dad's estate -- last chapter -- Mom cuts us out of her will, while we discover the Dad's will cut us in)
And it's not that the estate is all that big any more ( 30 million dollars among 7 children) -- or that the author needs the money -- she and her husband are both successful physicians.
It's just that the estate represents the emotional connection of one generation to another -- and she will always be cheated out of it.
Is this a story of cultural dissolution ? It's set in the foreign concessions of the coastal cities (eventually ending up in Hong Kong) Is it all about a family whose Confucian values are destroyed by foreign intervention ?
Or is it -- as the character's beloved aunt believes -- a traditional Chinese story of a "fox-devil spirit" -- that takes the form of a beautiful young woman -- and then wrecks havoc among all concerned.
That same beloved aunt also believed that the Communists -- despite the destruction that they caused to her family (she ended up living in a hovel) as well as the country as a whole -- were eventually going to "save China" -- and that the 21st C. would belong to China -- just as the 19th and 20th had belonged to Great Britain and America.
And perhaps she was right.
A few assorted details of interest:
*the picture of Hong Kong -- as it grows over those decades into a financial center -- and it's bizarre dependence on the mainland.
*the gradual but relentless attack on the commercial class. The author's great aunt is still running her bank a year after the revolution -- but eventually she will be dispossessed and end up destitute.
*the off-hand comment about healthcare in America: how Medicare was such a bonanza for the physicians - where they could bill the government for anything.