Waiting, Ha Jin
From Publishers Weekly
Jin’s quiet but absorbing second novel (after In the Pond) captures the poignant dilemma of an ordinary man who misses the best opportunities in his life simply by trying to do his duty as defined first by his traditional Chinese parents and later by the Communist Party. Reflecting the changes in Chinese communism from the ’60s to the ’80s, the novel focuses on Lin Kong, a military doctor who agrees, as his mother is dying, to an arranged marriage. His bride, Shuyu, turns out to be a country woman who looks far older than her 26 years and who has, to Lin’s great embarrassment, lotus (bound) feet. While Shuyu remains at Lin’s family home in Goose Village, nursing first his mother and then his ailing father, and bearing Lin a daughter, Lin lives far away in an army hospital compound, visiting only once a year. Caught in a loveless marriage, Lin is attracted to a nurse, Manna Wu, an attachment forbidden by communist strictures. According to local Party rules, Lin cannot divorce his wife without her permission until they have been separated for 18 years. Although Jin infuses movement and some suspense into Lin’s and Manna’s sometimes resigned, sometimes impatient waiting – they will not consummate their relationship until Lin is free – it is only in the novel’s third section, when Lin finally secures a divorce, that the story gathers real force. Though inaction is a risky subject and the thoughts of a cautious man make for a rather deliberate prose style (the first two sections describe the moments the characters choose not to act), the final chapters are moving and deeply ironic, proving again that this poet and award-winning short story writer can deliver powerful long fiction about a world alien to most Western readers.
I bought this several years back – I think it moved with me from Memphis five years ago – based on its good reviews and my long-standing interest in novels with Asian settings, and it’s been sitting unread on my shelf ever since. The whole premise of a man waiting for years to get a divorce so he could be with the woman he really loves was just a bit too painful for me, and I was over-identifying with the wife that was going to be set aside. If it hadn’t been the selection for Book Club this month, it would most likely still be sitting there.
I’m glad it’s not, though, as the actual story turned out to be less tragically romantic and infused with drama than my preconceptions about it were. The writing was spare and at times sketchy, although”reserved” may be a more appropriate description; it felt like the reader had to fill things in for herself in places. While you could feel for the characters’ predicament, they were sometimes frustrating as well, and overall the story was a bit sad. It was a pretty quick read, though, and now that I’m over the hurdle I’m glad I’ve read it, although it’s not going to be an all-time favorite.
Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy
From Publishers Weekly
Diagnosed at age nine with Ewing’s sarcoma, a cancer that severely disfigured her face, Grealy lost half her jaw, recovered after two and half years of chemotherapy and radiation, then underwent plastic surgery over the next 20 years to reconstruct her jaw. This harrowing, lyrical autobiographical memoir, which grew out of an award-winning article published in Harper’s in 1993, is a striking meditation on the distorting effects of our culture’s preoccupation with physical beauty. Extremely self-conscious and shy, Grealy endured insults and ostracism as a teenager in Spring Valley, N.Y. At Sarah Lawrence College in the mid-1980s, she discovered poetry as a vehicle for her pent-up emotions. During graduate school at the University of Iowa, she had a series of unsatisfying sexual affairs, hoping to prove she was lovable. No longer eligible for medical coverage, she moved to London to take advantage of Britain’s socialized medicine, and underwent a 13-hour operation in Scotland. Grealy now lives in New York City. Her discovery that true beauty lies within makes this a wise and healing book.
One item from this review is no longer correct – Lucy Grealy died in 2004. This memoir of her childhood cancer and its effect on her life up through young adulthood is fast-moving, well-written, and affecting. I would recommend reading it in tandem with its “unofficial” sequel, Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett. Lucy and Ann attended Sarah Lawrence College at the same time, but their friendship was cemented as roommates during graduate school and continued through the rest of Lucy’s life.
A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity, Kathleen Gilles Seidel
From Publishers Weekly
Seidel catalogues the trials of upper-middle-class family life in a novel that will appeal primarily to the sort of people it aims to (gently) critique. Ex-lawyer Lydia Meadows is so busy bracing herself to deal with potential bullies that she’s dazed to discover that her sixth grader, Erin, is—gasp—one of the popular girls at her posh Washington, D.C., private school. But when another girl knocks Erin from her pedestal, Lydia is shocked to find that Erin’s fall from grace has reverberations in her own life. Four adult women, whom Lydia considered her best friends–cum– “professional associates… all in the business of raising children,” adopt the petty behavior of their teenage daughters, which makes Lydia wonder where the line is between wanting the best for your children and being overly involved in their lives. Though there’s the odd snippet of sharp social commentary, the story is bogged-down with minutiae (readers don’t need to be walked through every car pool crisis to get the general idea), and Seidel beats some already-tired metaphors to death (the whole “it takes a village” concept, for example). This could have been a lively novel of manners, but dull prose and lackluster dramas (will the kids get into Sidwell Friends School?) flatten it.
This was a selection for the Dearreader.com book club last year, and I enjoyed that enough to seek out the book in paperback. I don’t really agree with the review comments quoted above. I actually found this to be a quick and enjoyable read, and pretty relatable from the perspective of over-relating to our kids, as parents, and over-identifying with their issues due to the chords they strike, and memories they trigger, in us. (I had a conversation on that very topic with TallGuy last night…) I’ll bring this one to the next Book Club for swap, definitely.