Review: The Red Chamber by Pauline A. Chen

Saturday, June 9, 2012
Genre: historical fiction, retellings
Series: N/A
Pages: 415 (Nook arc EDITION)
Published: expected July 10 2012
Source: publishers via edelweiss
Rating: 4.5/5

In this lyrical reimagining of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, set against the breathtaking backdrop of eighteenth-century Beijing, the lives of three unforgettable women collide in the inner chambers of the Jia mansion. When orphaned Daiyu leaves her home in the provinces to take shelter with her cousins in the Capital, she is drawn into a world of opulent splendor, presided over by the ruthless, scheming Xifeng and the prim, repressed Baochai. As she learns the secrets behind their glittering fa├žades, she finds herself entangled in a web of intrigue and hidden passions, reaching from the petty gossip of the servants’ quarters all the way to the Imperial Palace. When a political coup overthrows the emperor and plunges the once-mighty family into grinding poverty, each woman must choose between love and duty, friendship and survival.

In this dazzling debut, Pauline A. Chen draws the reader deep into the secret, exquisite world of the women’s quarters of an aristocratic household, where the burnish of wealth and refinement mask a harsher truth: marriageable girls are traded like chattel for the family’s advancement, and to choose to love is to risk everything.

After a bit of a slow start that was almost soap operatic in nature due to the sheer amount of secrets, lies, betrayals and affairs abounding, The Red Chamber impressed me with its scope and tragedy. Though I had anticipated an impending Tragedy with overtones of Old Timey Romantical Problems, this novel is far more than just love-triangles in powerful family. Based on one of China's Four Great Classical Novels, the 18th-century The Dream of the Red Chamber (also called The Story of the Stone) Chen's condensed version of the classic presents a more streamlined cast (down from 40 principle and 400 supporting to a much more manageable dozen or so main and limited background characters) and allows for more immediate impact from their respective edited storylines. I have not yet read the original version of The Dream of the Red Chamber, though I fully plan to now that I have devoured this in under a day, so I cannot honestly attest to the quality and breadth of this author's personal adaptation, but I can vouch for this novel's own uniquely compelling merits, of which there are many to enjoy. Historical fiction readers who enjoy convoluted family politics, strong and realistically flawed female protagonists set amid a backdrop of Imperial intrigue and maneuvering have found their next read right here.

If the author hadn't pared down the cast of characters invented by original author Cao Xueqin, each of the 40 main and 400 supporting wouldn't even get a page to themselves in this still-lengthy 400-page version. Clearly both the original author and Pauline Chen have a large scope and vision for their narrative and largely, it works. My few problems with The Red Chamber happened early and dissipated long before the end; the narrative jumps from character to character along a (seemingly) connected plotline, but there isn't much plot to be seen for the first 150 or so pages, and the characters themselves can come across as largely formulaic up to that point. Once the massive groundwork has been laid and personalities established, Chen really jumps into her novel. This seven-part novel is alive with a tangible, real feel for both its characters and its Qing setting and both benefit under the steady hand of this debut author. Condensing over 2000 pages into a compact 400 pag version cannot be an easy task, but outside from the sluggish introduction, I have to think that Chen did a remarkable job making the story, especially one so intricate and convoluted, definitely hers while still managing to pay homage to the ideas, themes and plotlines that made the first, original edition so well-loved and widely-read across China. 

I haven't read a ton of Chinese historical fiction, and the only one I've truly loved before this was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Happily the Manchu women shown in The Red Chamber don't undergo the tortuous footbinding I had to read about in Lisa See's novel, but their lives are just as constricted, regulated and predetermined as Lily and Snow Flower's golden toes ever were. This novel has a lot of main characters, but it is largely the women who take the cake; it is the women who save the Jia family over and over, usually with little to no thanks. Pauline Chen's cast of smart but very different women has several interesting parallels: Xifeng and Ping'ers friendship lost over love is mirrored in the storyline (and love-triangle) of Baochai, Daiyu and Baoyu. Each girl from either pair makes their decisions for love, for money, for security and Chen illustrates each at their best and their worst. It's easy to root for little Daiyu, to root for Xifeng in her canny awareness or to commiserate with Ping'er: though it takes a while to get there, this novel makes you care at least a little bit about its core group of flawed characters. As I said, there are several love-triangles present, and one of them is among three cousins, but keep in mind that this was written during the 1700s, when different social mores and ideas weren't thought of in the same way as in the modern age.

The third person omniscient POV used does -- thankfully -- keep The Red Chamber from the problem of too many individual, first-person POVs that so many other novels seem suffer from, but it also creates a bit of distance between the reader and some of the characters. I never connected or invested in Baochai, nor Lian, but perhaps that was point because both could be seen as obstacles in the way of happiness for other characters in the novel. Either way, this author takes time and care to present her characters as individual people, pulled by different wants and needs all tied neatly and permanently together due to family. Unifying themes of nostalgia, destiny help to pull all the overall plotlines of The Red Chamber back together for a solidly entertaining debut from this new author.

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