genre: historical fiction
In 1850s China, Peony is Chinese bondmaid in a wealthy household. The family whom she serves is not, however, a typical Chinese family - they are Jewish, a remnant of a group of people who arrived in their city of Kaifeng in centuries past. As a foreign people in a fair and accepting society, each generation has found a way to hold on their religious traditions even as interrmarriages and business partnerships make life ever more "Chinese." As Peony grows within this home of strange gods and rituals, she has slowly fallen in love their their only son, David, whom she can clearly never marry. For himself, David's struggle with his mother's religious zeal and his love of the Chinese people and their religion and culture creates a powerful contrast. How Peony and David's lives intermingle in this land of ancient customs as well as the Jewish plight abroad are at the heart of this novel.
I have never read anything like this, nor did I have any knowledge of Jewish people living among the Chinese, until I read this novel. Peony is a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, character. Her choices and feelings felt very realistic, her introspection and behavior, are fascinatingly different to what I would imagine other people would do in her situation. Sometimes she is so wickedly manipulative and other times so loyal - you definitely get an interesting look at the role a slave/servant played in a household, as a person who stood in the background and heard everything - how that intimate knowledge could be used for good or evil. It's a rather tragic story, in many ways, one particular scene completely surprised me with its tragedy.
The decline of a culture and religious community is a painful thing and I loved how Buck explored the emotions of all the different people involved as it becomes more and more certain that decline is inevitable. I felt sympathy for, especially, David's mother - who wasn't perfect but I get her soul-deep desires for her son. I get David's feelings too, to be caught between the people he has always lived among and the man his mother wants him to be.
I loved how I felt that the writing truly took me to China, it felt intimate and real - and even if it sometimes got repetitive (especially when describing all the getting-dressed and doing-hair etc.) I never wanted to give up on it and in the end, I'm very glad I finished it. Peony's arc as a character was rather beautiful, her loyalty and kindness are their own happy ending.