Feng is a young woman who is mostly ignored by everyone in her family with the exception of her grandfather who dotes on her. Her older sister is the one everyone’s hopes and dreams ride on but she’s cruel to Feng and the two have never had any sort of relationship. When her sister dies unexpectedly, Feng is forced to marry her fiancé to hold up the arrangements her parents made and Feng finds herself a wife to a son of a well-known and rich family in Shanghai with no idea how to fend for herself or any understanding of what’s expected of her.
All the Flowers in Shanghai interested me because this is a timeframe I’m unfamiliar with — Shanghai in the 1930s — and I don’t read much historical fiction set in China which was very appealing. While the setting was interesting, I didn’t care for any of the characters. Feng goes from being exceptionally naïve to bitter in an amazingly short time frame. Her mother, the social climber, is not even worth mentioning as she wasn’t much of a mother so much as person bartering away her daughters for social acceptance. In the end, this book is a letter to a daughter Feng doesn’t know but why she would write such awful things to her daughter I just don’t understand. Yes, she was looking for forgiveness in the end, but throwing every hateful thing she’s ever done out into the world — both to the daughter and to her husband — doesn’t portray her in a good way.
Oddly, Feng gave her daughter away so that she wouldn’t have to face the life she did but the entire time I was reading, I kept wondering why she couldn’t leave any of her bitterness especially for her children. No, her life wasn’t an easy one but she didn’t want to see any happiness in her life and drove all of it away from her which meant she drove every family member away that she could. In the end of her life, she does begin to understand her hatred and deal with it but the letter feels like a poor apology and nothing more. She spent her whole life looking to get back at people and never sought to understand anyone’s motivation but her own and I couldn’t accept her mea culpa.
Like I said, the setting is really appealing and I wish there had been more about the revolution and the changes China went through. Because the story is told through Feng’s perspective, it’s hard to see the impact of the changes and what little of the revolution Feng does come in contact with she doesn’t understand because of the secluded life she led.
While I had trouble with the characters in this book, the writing is solid and has given me a new timeframe for historical fiction to explore.
I won this book through the LIbrayThing Early Reviewers program. An ARC was sent to me by the publisher for review.
All the Flowers in Shanghai
By Duncan Jepson