A THREAD OF SKY by Deanna Fei

Book Quote:

“Irene couldn’t bring their father back, but if she could gather them all for this tour, together they might recover a missing link. Not the notion that Kay was chasing of their laojia, their ancestral home – but a new understanding of an old truth, old as civilization itself. A truth about death and life, about generations, about permanence. Then, and perhaps only then, could she and her daughters come back home. Jia – family, house, home. In Chinese it was all one word.”

Book Review:

Review by Lynn Harnett (JUL 20, 2010)

In 2000 Fei toured China, her family’s ancestral homeland, with her mother, two sisters, grandmother and aunt. From that trip came the inspiration and the framework for this painterly, character-driven first novel. In acknowledging this Fei is quick to assert, “it is not about them; it does not depict their histories or their personalities.”

I expect her relatives will be quick to agree as Fei’s well-drawn characters – strong women all – are not only flawed, but cranky, querulous and generally dissatisfied with their lot. Except the grandmother, turning 80, a former nationalist revolutionary whose life of struggle, glory and tragedy has settled into a peaceful old age in California near her son.

“In her own home Lin Yulan was strong, self-sufficient, active, autonomous. On this tour she had to just keep up. And she could have, if not for her failing body. Aching joints, blistering feet, diarrhea – such were the afflictions finally dragging her down.

Meanwhile, her daughters and granddaughters complained, heaved loud sighs, cursed at mosquitoes – one bane she’d outlasted. Mosquitoes, like men, prefer younger, softer flesh – eating tofu, as the saying goes.”
Their trip to their China is the mother’s idea (Lin Yulan’s daughter). Alone at New Year’s, five months widowed, her three daughters scattered, Irene’s loneliness makes her desperate. She last saw her daughters together at their father’s funeral. He had died the day he left her, having fallen asleep at the wheel of his car. Irene believes the girls blame her. That day, she slammed the door on him, saying “Good riddance,“ words she has regretted ever since.

Irene devoted her life – giving up a brilliant career in genetics – to her daughters. Each was valedictorian of her class; each went on to a prestigious university. Nora, the eldest, excels in a man’s world on Wall Street. Kay, a social activist, is in China, trying to get in touch with her roots and save Chinese prostitutes. Sophie, the youngest, will be off to college at summer’s end and can’t wait.

Gorgeous and brilliant, each girl is unhappy. Fei’s writing is precise and exquisite, but she fails to let these girls redeem themselves with a sense of humor or moments of reflection at their immense good fortune.

Nora is engaged, but unable to name a wedding date, consumed by fears of betrayal – which are inevitably fulfilled. Kay keeps three very different men at bay, unable to choose or let them go, and Sophie, less willowy than her sisters, hates her body and indulges in bulimia.

Irene’s sister, Susan, a poet, married late in life. “Susan had said, as if it was a lesson learned, Nobody wants to die alone.”

Lin Yulan left her husband to come to America with her three children. She and her husband were nationalists – heroes during WWII who were forced to flee to Taiwan when the communists took over. He was a philanderer and she has cut him out of her life entirely, although her granddaughters, particularly Kay, who has met him, hope for a reunion. As does the old man, apparently. He plans to come to Hong Kong to meet them after the tour.

The novel’s point of view roves from woman to woman, each with her secrets, her inner fears and doubts, her struggle to keep the proper image of herself in place even for family.

The trip itself is rather appalling: a captive group bussed and rushed from place to place, seeing a lot more of official souvenir shops than Chinese “must-sees.” They are taken advantage of at every opportunity and even Irene and Susan, who speak the language and connect with some of the people, find themselves shrewdly, cynically, manipulated.

Secrets are revealed along the way, but one secret is much greater than all of them and helps put things in perspective. The women reach varying degrees of epiphany, a difficult journey for each. No one gets everything they want, but each finds an unexpected strength in vulnerability and family bonds.

Fei is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of several academic grants and it shows. The characters are beautifully drawn, every sentence is well crafted and the pace is measured. Fei is in control of her art and while some readers may wish she had taken herself just a tad less seriously, most will find this well-shaped story satisfying and its prose a pleasure to savor.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 24 readers
PUBLISHER: Penguin Press HC, The (April 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Lynn Harnett
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt

Big Breasts, Wide Hips by Mo Yan

Brothers by Yu Hua

And a bit lighter:

The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan


July 20, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Character Driven, China, Debut Novel, Family Matters, Literary, World Lit

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