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Although Buck was a Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinning novelist—one who can claim credit for the first popular, realistic portrayals of China in America—her reputation suffered a swift decline after her death. An evaluative biography is overdue, but Conn's academic work seems an uncomfortable mix, part history primer, part summary survey of Buck's life. Its portrait of Buck is less detailed—and less engaging—than that to be found in her biographies of her evangelical missionary parents or in her own memoirs. Conn (English/Univ. of Pennsylvania) has gathered a great deal of information about China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, tracing its history from the Boxer Rebellion up to the Chinese civil war. He tries to place Buck's lonely childhood in China with her Calvinist father and homesick mother, her bicultural education, and her frustrated marriage to a hardworking but distant agricultural expert and missionary within the larger context of events in China—but he fails to integrate the two levels of narrative. When her second novel, The Good Earth, brought her sudden, skyrocketing fame, she settled in America, only to find her rosy expatriate patriotism at odds with native jingoism, racism, and sexism. For the rest of her career, while she continued to churn out novels, she also became an outspoken critic of American foreign policy and segregation, a supporter of women's rights, and a promoter of international/interracial adoption, facts just as dimmed now as her literary status.
Conn's fact-filled book goes some way to resuscitate Buck's career and strong opinions, but Buck herself remains a shadowy figure.
"Conn examines almost every piece of work Buck ever wrote and explains why it's important today....[he] has gone far beyond merely touting Buck's literary merits to portray a consistent, believable and immensely fascinating woman. This is biography at its best: informative and entertaining....Conn has done an amazing amount of research....a compelling biography, a must-read for people interested in China, the publishing world, awe-inspiring women, the struggles of people of color, or, the day-to-day dramas of human life." The Los Angeles Times
"At last! A fascinating biography of Pearl S. Buck, vividly written, vigorously researched....a gripping, stunning read." Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt
"...A considerable achievement." Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China
"...expertly written, not only as a biography but also as a political history." Library Journal
"This brilliantly conceived biography steers a sympathetic yet intelligently balanced course, revealing in fascinating detail the gripping life story of a compelling woman." Publishers Weekly
"This biography is the best available scholarly discussion of a remarkably popular author and Nobel laureate who has been neglected by most literary historians....Highly recommended as a valuable addition to all public and academic library collections." Choice
"Peter Conn has written a very readable biography of one whose life reflects much of the complexity of her time." Catherine Kord, The American Review
"Nevertheless, she certainly was a major figure of her time, and to follow her life in Conn's finely detailed narrative is to encounter a powerful and moving 20th century experience...All these facets of Buck's life are sensitively described by Conn, who never allows his admiration for his subject to blind him to her frailties and her mistakes in judgement." Lousville, KY Courier-Journal (the reviewer is Richard Bernstein, with The New York Times)
"Meticulously researched, well-written, thorough and fair in its assessment of one of the most popular American writers of the century, this scholarly treatise is more than a biography, It is a cultural history of East-West relations." Reese Danley-Kilgo, Huntsville, AL Times