All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan JepsonISBN: 978-0062081605
Release Date: January 2012
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Historical Fiction; Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.0 out of 5
Book Summary: For every young Chinese woman in 1930s Shanghai, following the path of duty takes precedence over personal desires .
For Feng, that means becoming the bride of a wealthy businessman in a marriage arranged by her parents. In the enclosed world of the Sang household—a place of public ceremony and private cruelty—fulfilling her duty means bearing a male heir. For every young Chinese woman in 1930s Shanghai, following the path of duty takes precedence over personal desires.
The life that has been forced on her makes Feng bitter and resentful, and she plots a terrible revenge. But with the passing years comes a reckoning, and Feng must reconcile herself with the sacrifices and terrible choices she has made in order to assure her place in the family and society—even as the violent, relentless tide of revolution engulfs her country.
My thoughts: All the Flowers in Shanghai is the story of Feng’s life as she looks back on it and records her memories. This book is light on plot focusing primarily on the character of Feng and, to a lesser degree, the people closest to her. Feng recounts much of her life with honesty and integrity, an act which requires great courage since she was an angry, bitter woman out for revenge most of her life.
Feng spent her childhood days, outside of school, with her grandfather in the gardens by her home. He taught her all about flowers and plants and about her deceased grandmother. Feng’s mother was busy grooming her older sister to marry a wealthy man and thereby establish their family in society. This was a time consuming undertaking providing Feng much freedom to do as she pleased. Her life was very simple, quite the opposite of her Sister’s (Feng never gave her a name) which was filled with glamorous clothes, makeup, social events and suitors. Feng had no understanding of Sister’s life and viewed it as one of extreme “complexity and sophistication” and considered her sister to be “far above her”.
Wedding plans were soon being made for Sister. Marriage isn’t part of Feng’s future plans. As the second daughter, it’s expected that she will live at home and take care of her parents as they age. Feng accepts this, showing no interest in a life like Sisters. Feng seems much younger than Sister although only 5 years separates them. Feng is sweet, happy and childlike, without any of her sister’s arrogance or scheming, conniving mind, but she’s also immature and naive. Feng’s freedom has spoiled her while the companionship of her grandfather, who she loves dearly has infantilized her. I was quite surprised to learn that Feng was 17 at this time.
The tone of the narrative changes considerably when, much to her shock and dismay, as well as the readers, Feng is married off to a wealthy family. A situation arises making it impossible for Sister to marry (which I won’t reveal here). Feng’s mother is too desperate to be a part of wealthy society and insists that Feng marry in Sister’s place! Feng is given very little notice or time to prepare herself for such a monumental change. Feng’s life changes completely in a matter of days. Her pain and hurt are palpable particularly when her father and her grandfather, the two people who’ve always loved and supported her, don’t object to the arrangement or come to her defense. Feng feels betrayed and utterly alone. Her writing about her feelings at this time, is so stark and honest that I felt overwhelmed by her pain, sadness and dismay.
Feng’s last few days in her home are a whirlwind of activity. She’s an automaton going through the motions in terrible shock. Grandfather completely abandons her, leaving the house for several days. Suddenly, Feng finds herself glamorously dressed standing in a resplendent room in a huge house, tears running down her face as the three day wedding ceremony begins. The strange, unfamiliar surroundings intensify Feng’s already overwhelming pain and hurt. The seeds of anger that will mark her days for years to come, are already sprouting as she experiences her first truly cruel thoughts. They are directed at her family. Feng’s once light and carefree spirit is curdling in the pit of her stomach as the pain and hurt turn into anger and bitterness. Xiong Fa, her new husband, is a nice, kind man, if a little immature, and willing to make things work and even fall in love. But Feng has difficulty not viewing him as an enemy. She’s been provided a maid, Yan, who is kind and tender towards her and Feng relies on her these first days of her marriage.
Feng is soon unrecognizable as the young, simple girl she used to be. She has all the material things she wants and, aside from daily meals with the family, little is asked of her. But she’s miserable and truly angry. The pain and hurt she feels doesn’t lessen over time but grows as she harbors thoughts of revenge. Any new pain adds fuel to the fire. She tells about the families obsession with a male heir. Feng is expected to produce one as soon as possible. Feng knows this but has absolutely no idea how it’s accomplished. And she doesn’t like it at all when she finds out. Having no understanding about life and how to make things work, Feng behaves in ways that make life difficult and unpleasant for herself and her new husband. My thoughts and feeling were all over the place at this point in my reading. I wanted to shake Feng and slap some sense into her. But I also felt badly for her and just wanted to hug her. I found it infuriating that so much angst over the male heir could have been avoided if Feng’s mother or somebody talked to her about men and women and relationships.
Feng grows to appreciate many of the finer things her new family’s money can be. Xiong Fa gives her beautiful and generous gifts she enjoys. Feng soon loves the glamorous, rich clothes and accessories along with the respect and deference the public shows her. It’s not long before Feng understands the power that comes with this kind of wealth. She begins to behave in accordance, exercising her power, treating people from family members to servants with unkindness and disdain. Feng learns how to manipulate people as a woman with wealth, status and power. She also discovers how to use her body and sex against Xiong Fa. As the weeks, months and years pass, Feng becomes more selfish, cruel and ugly as intense anger and bitterness fester inside her. She exacts revenge whenever possible for perceived wrongs against her, behaving in truly reprehensible ways. She doesn’t grow as a person, mature or take responsibility for anything she says or does and she shows no respect for others. It was difficult to like Feng or to continue to understand why she was like this never mind sympathize with her. Feng looks at everything from the perspective of how it impacts her. Anger and bitterness has made her weak, self-centered alone.
I tried to believe in and root for Feng for most of the book but she really disappointed me the last six or seven chapters of the book. I thought she was courageous to record her life story for her family but when the time came to own up to her behavior once and for all, she took the coward’s way out. And, although I think she’s very honest about some parts of her life, I also think she doesn’t own up to everything that she did and left some things buried that she didn‘t want to face. For instance, I was hoping to learn more about her relationship with Yan, which changes and becomes more formal. Not surprisingly, Feng took care of this with a sentence or two failing to provide a truthful explanation.
This is an emotionally powerful and intense book. Duncan Jepson’s writing is engaging and this story captivated me from the first page even though there‘s only one major character and no real plot. I was intrigued to learn about marriage traditions and the role of women in 1930’s China. I thought it interesting that most of the male characters were quiet and meek, susceptible to manipulation or, in the case of Feng’s father-in-law, arrogant and pompous. I suppose this is because Feng didn’t think highly of the men in her life and this is her story. There’s little character development of any of the other characters which is, again, a symptom of this being Feng‘s story and, therefore, all about her. Feng’s behavior, when her friend Ming tells her she’s moving to America evidences how self-centered Feng is. She becomes irate, feeling that Ming is abandoning her and worries about who she’ll confide in now. She shows little concern for Ming’s welfare despite that she and her husband are leaving because they are worried about the state of China under Chairman Mao. Feng is a very damaged, stuck woman for most of her life but her story is absorbing and hard to ignore. I recommend this book to readers who enjoy strong mail characters with riveting stories to tell!
Duncan Jepson’s website: All the Flowers in Shanghai
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review All the Flowers in Shanghai and to William Morrow for an ARC copy of this book.