This review doubles up for the Back to the Classics, and the first completed title in my Classics Club list.
Pavilion of Women, by Pearl S. Buck, 1946
Listened to book by Oasis Audio
My rating, ★★★✫
Last year I read a few titles about China and Japan. My favorite was The Makioka Sisters. The Makioka Sisters was the only title by a Japanese author, the other books were by Americans who have different ties with China in particular. This is to make a case for a possible defense of my preferring eastern authors for books about the east, and Russian authors writing about Russia, etc. I can see the trap of making this a rule, though. And Pearl S. Buck was, as some of her own characters in this book, caught in the middle of both worlds. I just didn’t feel this was purely Chinese. But what do I know about China? This is confusing, guys, the struggle to review a book is real! he he he.
Pearl S. Buck’s most renown book is, I believe, The Good Earth. I wonder if that’s where I should have started. I didn’t, I picked this title first. It intrigued me. The plot reminded me of a poignant movie I watched many years ago, The Red Lantern, (based on a book).
On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu carries out a decision she has been planning for a long time: she tells her husband that after twenty-four years their physical life together is now over and she wishes him to take a second wife.
This book has high ratings in general (Goodreads, Amazon). I expected more from it, for some reason. Nothing new. Typical of me, I always expect movies to surprise me, and the classics I read to be no less than spectacular.
One review of her other book, The Good Earth, caught my attention. The lady, Chinese and young, remarked how people not only praised the novel for being well written, good literature, but how people went too far elevating this book as ‘the book that explained China to the western world’.
Nabokov’s words on historical novels are always in my head since I read them for the first time:
Another question: Can we expect to glean information about places and times from a novel? Can anybody be so naive as to think he or she can learn anything about the past from those buxom best-sellers that are hawked around by book clubs under the heading of historical novels? But what about the masterpieces? Can we rely on Jane Austen’s picture of landowning England with baronets and landscaped grounds when all she knew was a clergyman’s parlor? And Bleak House, that fantastic romance within a fantastic London, can we call it a study of London a hundred years ago? Certainly not. And the same holds for other such novels in this series. The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales—and the novels in this series are supreme fairy tales.
I simply agree.
Pavilion of Women is the tale of Madam Wu’s. The first two thirds of the book got my attention. Then enters Father Andrew, and the tale starts to crack. When the two worldviews meet in the person of Madam Wu and Father Andrew, the Chinese and the ‘foreign’ (christian?) point of views lose authenticity. The mood changes in the book. The last third of the book has sporadic bright moments, but it becomes a slightly contrived tale of redemption.
And yet, I cannot dislike the book, I feel a fondness for the characters, I appreciate the images she paints for us, and the philosophical questions she raises, the inner dialogues, and thoughts of Madam Wu and others.
Paradoxically, the last third, which to me brings the novel down a notch, may be the part that possibly teaches us more history. (And it’d make sense that when the author loses the fairy tale quality, she may leave for us a sociopolitical tale about the truncated efforts of individuals to transplant a whole new christian ethos in such an alien soil as China). We then witness a little bit of the changes that happened to China at the time of WWII, and the muddled ‘christian’ ideas that some broken individuals with their presence, salt and peppered in that vast and complex society. But, as the reviewer warned us, we’d do best to take this view of China as a grain of salt.
By the end of the review, I’m (as usual), feeling a tad guilty about criticizing the book. If I consider how much the book is making me think about the issue of freedom, duty and service, the meaning of life, I’d say it’s a great book. And there’s an undeniable Chinese element that’s felt and noticed to the western reader, even if this is just Pearl S. Buck’s China, it’s a slice of it. As I know nothing about this culture, I appreciate books that show me however tiny view of it.
If I have to speak about that evasive literary quality, the ability to not only inform, but delight the reader in a rounded and robust manner, I must reiterate my rating of just three and a half stars★★★✫ out of five.