Jennifer Epstein’s book reads like a good Zhang Yimou movie — a harsh, brutal, lush, hopeful, soaring glimpse into China’s past. Yuliang was sold into prostitution at age 14 by her uncle, in order to pay off opium debts. After several years in the brothel, she is rescued by Pan Zanhua, a government worker who ends up taking Yuliang as his second wife in order to avoid scandal. It’s through Zanhua, though, that Yuliang is introduced to art, and because of him that she manages to find her true calling in life.
Not that it is easy: it was difficult for a woman in China in the 1920s to get into an art program, it was controversial for artists to paint nudes, and after Yuliang gets a scholarship to Paris and later Rome, it is difficult and controversial for her to go back again. But, through it all, she stays true to her art, her passion, even when it cost her dearly.
Sure, there’s probably that line-blurring, and perhaps someone will even complain that Epstein didn’t get it “right.” But, for me, Epstein’s novel is a lush look into the world of postimpressionist art and the politics of China as well as Yuliang’s life over several decades. It might sound like a lot to handle in one novel, but Epstein makes it work. She even makes present-tense narration — something which usually grates on me — work beautifully. It’s a lyrical first work, and makes one hopeful for what Epstein has to offer us in the future. My only complaint is that it didn’t come with pictures; thankfully, Epstein has rectified that by putting samples of the artist’s work up on her web page. With that, the book is just about perfect.
Rated: Moderate — there are sex scenes, and instances of brutality (the main character is a prostitute for a while), but they are done tastefully. Language includes a couple of instances of the f-word.