Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Red Chamber

The Red Chamber, by Pauline A. Chen.

"You must go. It's what your mother wanted."

She can hear the finality in his voice. She looks at him in the light filtering through the paper panes of the kitchen window. His face looks tired, and a little irritated. He is too exhausted to argue with her.

"It's just a visit," he says.

"How long do I have to go for?"

"Just a few months. You can come back in time for New Year's."

She calculates quickly. It is now the Seventh Month. To be back for the New Year she will have to leave the Capital by the end of the Eleventh Month.

Thus it was decided that she would go north to her mother's family.


This novel is a "spin off" of sorts of Dream of the Red Chamber, by Cao Xueqin, which is over 2,500 pages long. This author, Pauline A. Chen, decided to "translate Dream of the Red Chamber not merely into another language, but into another form, that of a contemporary western novel" when she was teaching the book at Oberlin College. I have not read the original novel, but this novel was very good, and although it takes place in the 18th century I forgot about what time period it was in as the book went on, because the themes in it are classic.

There are a lot of characters in this book, so many so that the author made a family tree at the beginning for her readers. Here's the synopsis of it from the release:

Daiyu is an impoverished orphan adopted into the household who falls in love with Baiyu, the brilliant, unpredictable heir to the family fortunes. Despite his love for her, the family betroths Baoyu to his cousin Baochai, who hides her own desires under a dutiful exterior. Meanwhile, the young matron Xifeng struggles to protect the family from financial ruin, even as her husband spurns her for her inability to bear a child. Linking the three womens' fate is the jade, a mysterious stone found in Baoyu's mouth at birth, which seems to foretell a strange and extraordinary destiny for him and the entire family.

The novel starts out with the family living very richly. They have a ton of maids and servants, yet there is still strife in the household. Xifeng is unable to bear a child to Lian, her husband, so he takes one of her maids as his "second wife," or concubine. The maid he chooses, however - Ping'er - has been with Xifeng since childhood; this is a slap in the face to Xifeng, for the most part. Daiyu is falling in love with her cousin, Baoyu, but his elders have secretly betrothed him to Baochai, who loves Baoyu but knows that he does not reciprocate. When a new leader takes power in China, however, their family's fortune changes, and the men are sent to jail for various crimes while the women have to make do in a one-bedroom apartment.

This book was excellent and is a much more manageable length - about 375 pages - than its predecessor. There is always so much going on within the pages that its reader should not be bored, and the story it tells is a good one. There's a major twist at the end as well that I did not see coming, and it's only revealed in the last few pages. In an interview with Pauline A. Chen, in regards to the novel, she said: "I added a question that gripped me as a modern reader and writer: in a culture where women's opportunities and movements were ruthlessly restricted, in what ways could they shape their own destinies?"

This novel strives to answer that question, and does an excellent job in doing so.

4.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of this novel to review. However, the opinions expressed here are my own.

2 comments:

  1. Adding this to my winter reading list. thanks for the recommendation.

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    Replies
    1. Good to hear! It's a great book.

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