Sunday, March 25, 2012

the concubine's daughter

Take me to a bookstore, and I can easily spend hours there. Growing up my mother would take me on field trips to the World's Biggest Bookstore once or twice a year (if we were in Toronto for a show, or to buy me a saxophone, or a fancy dinner this was a guaranteed stop) and without fail I would freak out. This store was like magic to me with books piled upon books as far as the eye could see. I'd never seen so many books in one place before. I'd go off and reverently look and touch at as many possible books I could find in the sections that interested me, my mom would go off into her New Age section and come out with a deck of Tarot Cards.

Given all the books that I would see and touch and want to read, it was inevitable that I would wind up with more books on my "want" list than would realistically come home with me. Thus began a long standing bookstore habit: lusting over the same book, time and again.

I'll go in to a store, and the same title will catch my eye a million times. I'll pick the book up, think about it, and ultimately decide that it's not the book I'm buying today. Maybe next time. This can go on for weeks, months, sometimes even years.

That's what happened with Pai Kit Fai's The Concubine's Daughter. Every trip to Indigo Books in the past year, I have seen this title. Picked it up, read the back and thought Hmmm, this could be interesting and then XYZ reason means I shouldn't get this one today. So I kept putting it back on the shelf.

A couple of trips ago, though, I'd already picked up a Christopher Moore number to feed my current obsession, and as I was making my way to the register I stopped at the Bargain Books table. They're a bargain, you know, which means clearly I have to have them. If a book is crap at $3, do I really care? Heck no! Well, lo and behold but The Concubine's Daughter was marked down to $4.99. I'd considered it so many times in the past that I decided to just bite the bullet and buy the damn book. So I did.

Let me tell you, I wanted to love this book. I really, really did. I wanted to like it a lot. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Maybe there was a reason I put it down a dozen other times.

The problem? The grand, over-arching plot simply wasn't cohesive to me. It fell apart. The introduction to the story was interesting, but weak. Things always seemed to go just so - which, given the ending I suppose makes sense, but didn't feel natural. Characters were given strength, but in some cases only got to where they wanted or needed to be through luck. The characters were interesting, but not particularly developed. And in the end the whole story came down to a pre-destined kung fu battle. It just didn't work.

What did work for me was how rich the cultural narrative was. I enjoyed delving into Chinese cultural traditions that are utterly foreign to me. Histories that speak to strong women, and traditions but are so very different from my own. My favourite sections of the books dealt with Li-Xia's time on the silk farm and her daughter Siu-Sing's time working in the near-sex-trade. The book spoke of strong women, but in the end I never felt as if they were real women. They felt like Mary Jane characters in bad fan fiction, the idealized self.
For $5 I don't regret buying it, or really reading it. I certainly won't read it again. The one good thing? It has me more interested in picking up the Joy Luck Club. I'm not sure why I haven't read that yet.

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