An Empire of Women

An Empire of Women

by Karen Shepard


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An Empire of Women by Karen Shepard

The three generations of Arneaux women have never gotten along. Now they must unite, to decide the fate of their temporary charge, a displaced six-year-old Chinese girl. But to do so, they'll have to come to terms with the lies they have told themselves...

"Delicate yet searing...Shepard has ably portrayed how obsession with female beauty can disfigure not only families and individuals, but cultures and governments." (New York Times Book Review)

"Intricate and intriguing." (New York Daily News)

"A bravura performance." (Rosellen Brown)

"Plainspoken and direct, yet rich in complexities, the story...raises a host of compelling questions about heritage and family, and more than a few about contemporary art." (Publishers Weekly)

"An exhilarating debut." (Margot Livesey)

"Not since Virginia Woolf have the snares and scars of familial relationships been rendered with such brilliance." (Ron Hansen)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399146671
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/11/2000
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.59(w) x 8.75(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born in New York City. Her fiction has appeared in Southwest Review and Mississippi Review.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


    Sumin and Cameron were back on the entrance ramp before they realized Alice wasn't in the car. Cam cursed, threw the Volkswagen into reverse and started backing up. Her silver bracelets jangled.

    Mother and daughter were on Interstate 81, somewhere in Pennsylvania. Sumin realized that if it came to talking to authorities, it would sound bad that they didn't know exactly where in Pennsylvania they were. She tried to visualize the exit number.

    The car was still traveling in reverse. Sumin held on to the dash and looked straight ahead. This seemed unnecessary, she said to her daughter. There were horns. She avoided looking at the other drivers.

    Cam swerved to avoid a pickup. She took a breath. "Mother," she began. She used the term only when particularly annoyed.

    "Don't talk," Sumin said.

    "Shut up," her daughter replied.

    The Texaco station was just past the intersection. Cam looked both ways and drove through the red light. A man in a station wagon opposite them shook his finger.

    "All I'm saying," Sumin continued, "is that if it were me driving ..."

    Cam turned in to the station. "If it were you driving, Alice would've ended up living with the gas station owner, his wife and their fourteen kids."

    Alice was standing next to the pump. It was where the car had been when she'd gone to the bathroom. She was wearing red culottes and a red-and-white-stripedT-shirt. Her plastic sandals were orange. Except for her sandals, she matched the colors of the Texaco sign. She was short for her age, and her straight black hair that hung to the middle of her back made her seem even shorter. Sumin found her faith touching and vaguely frightening. Cam beeped the horn to get the girl's attention and then waved and smiled at her.

    How in God's name was Cam going to raise this six-year-old?

    Alice didn't move as they pulled up. She allowed herself to be hugged and apologized to and walked back to the car.

    Sumin turned to her and said, "Let's talk about what to do if this happens again."

    This wasn't going to happen again, Cam told Alice, because from now on, when she needed to go to the bathroom, someone would always go with her. Cam gave her mother a look.

    "Oh no," Sumin said. "You're not pinning this on me. She asked where the bathroom was; I told her."

    Cam lowered her voice. "She's six," she said to her mother.

    "My point exactly," Sumin responded. Then she leaned closer to Cam and added in a stage whisper, "She can hear you. It's a Volkswagen Bug."

    "Ha," Alice said.

    Sumin scrunched her nose at her.

    Cam looked at Alice in the rearview mirror. "Whatever," she said. "Just don't worry. This won't happen again, okay?"

    The girl looked back and forth at them, moving just her eyes rather than her whole head. She patted Cam on the shoulder. "I'm okay," she said. "I'm okay."

    Sumin turned back around and smiled. It felt good to have an ally; unfamiliar and pleasant.

* * *

    A story I told Alice over the telephone, which she asked me to tell her again, less than a week later—Please, Celine, just once more: The silk store in Shanghai that I had to beg my mother to let me visit. Don't be silly, she would say. We don't go out for dressmaking; they come to us. But once, she relented. Broad, lacquered counters covered in white felt. The store employed only male attendants with manicured nails so as not to damage the silks. Even as a nine-year-old, I was struck dumb with appreciation for a place in which everything was so smooth, as if buffed to a high gloss. How did they get their nails like that? What would it feel like to lie between those bolts and bolts of silk?

    Alice laughed with pleasure at the phrase: bolts and bolts of silk.

    Now at Charles de Gaulle, however many years later, I sat in despair at the prospect of travel. Hours to Washington, D.C.; more hours in the car to the cabin in Virginia. Airports used to be like the theater. Men wore suits. Women wore hats and gloves. Theater in Paris in the thirties with my father. What I looked forward to most was dressing up, standing at the bar for the long intermission, dining afterwards at L'Aiglon or Fouquet's. We always sat at one particular banquette at L'Aiglon. We sat side by side with a view of the other diners. Now I suffered families in sweatsuits. Glossy horrible things with rescue-vehicle colors.

    I chose a chair close to the boarding gate, far from an American family with three boys. I was wearing Thai silk—purple, hand-embroidered in golden thread. I smoothed the tunic under me as I sat. My chair was plastic, uncomfortable. A distasteful odor circulated.

    I had packed the other silks last. The beige blouse, the chocolate pants would wrinkle. White tissue paper from the bedroom closet, folded into the silks, was the only way to prevent it. I'd taught Cam this.

    I taught my granddaughter everything. Cam had had everything.

    Memories floated through me like manta rays. Unexpected, they glided up, constant reminders of how much the present owed the past.

    The first floor of the marketplace a "bad girl" in school had taken me to one day after I moved to Paris. Satin shoes tattered from dancing, artificial flowers, stained silk dresses, torn lace skirts, all bought by the poorest girls as costumes. Literal-minded interviewers made the place the seed of my tendency to costume Cam. It was the sort of simpleminded connection at which interviewers excelled.

    An idiot Englishman with his public school imagination connected the theatricality of my shots to Hill and Adamson's work of the 1840s: calotypes of friends dressed up in armor or as monks, illustrating passages from the novels of Sir Walter Scott.

    A passage from that Greek fellow's review of Six in The New York Times which I could still quote: "The intimate, familial, biological connection between photographer and child is palpable—is, in fact, the essential aspect of their emotional content." (Finally a moment of insight in a review: I was Cameron's essential aspect. And she mine.)

    I'd agreed too quickly to this article. Who knew what this Grady wanted out of the piece? He'd been living with Sumin for years; how serious a journalist could he be? Nothing he had said during the two times I had met him had convinced me of any intelligence. And who wanted to resurrect the Cam photographs and all that came with them? Wasn't that why I'd moved back to Paris? Hadn't I said that all that was finished? Cameron until the age of twelve had been a mystery, a puzzle. After twelve, something happened to the most captivating of gifts. They became the solution to the equation, not the equation itself.

    There was general public uproar at my decision. There were articles about what might entice me back to Cam. There were retrospectives lamenting what might've been. Cam seemed, as usual, unperturbed. As if she hadn't given the future of our photos any thought at all. I barely remembered Sumin's reaction. Something filled with nervousness, I was sure.

    And it was only Aperture.

    Still, a whole issue. I'd never been able to turn down any kind of sustained attention.

    A time to take stock. This would-be interviewer's intended enticement. He was out of his depth, and he was the one with whom I would have to deal.

    I had announced to him that I was too old to regret anything. I had lived beyond the age of regret. And now, sitting on my grey plastic chair, I thought, isn't that what we spend our lives doing, simply trying to get away with it all?

    It was too warm in the airport's waiting area. Other travelers' noises made me warmer. I loosened my scarf. At least I'd been successful in resisting the magazine's offer for one of their people to accompany me on the trip. Even up until last night, whoever they had assigned had persisted. He had rung twice. Was I sure I didn't want his help? It would give him a chance to meet me; he was an admirer. He was also doing the background work on the article. Taking the trip together would give us a chance to fill in some blanks. It had been exactly the wrong thing to say. I closed my eyes. I smoothed my silk tunic across my legs again.

    And there was the child, with the Lewis Carroll name. Cam was not up to the task. I had told her as much on numerous occasions over the last six months. She shouldn't have agreed to be the girl's guardian in the first place. The girl belonged back in China with her mother, not in America. I'd told Cam this as well. I'd told her that I had started making the arrangements with my contacts in the Chinese government; she would understand, in time, that this was the only way. Cam had asked me to stop arranging; she would bring the girl to the cabin; I could see them together. She could show me that this was what her life had needed; this was what she had been made to do.

    Please, I'd said. But I'd agreed, charmed by the heat of her attention. And, more surprisingly, pleased at the thought of a child in the cabin after all those years.

    When I developed the first pictures of Cam, Yeats rang in my head. "Leda and the Swan," and the last lines of "Her Triumph": "And now we stare astonished at the sea, / And a miraculous strange bird shrieks at us." And my own words, from an early interview in Lucien Vogel's Vu, up until then hollow: The intensity with which a subject is grasped is what makes for beauty in art.

* * *

    Back on the interstate, in the middle of Cam and Sumin's discussion about how Alice had been left in the first place, the little girl lay down across the backseat and fell asleep.

    Cam whispered, "Now see what you've done."

    Sumin stared at her daughter. "She's asleep."

    "She does it when she's anxious," Cam said. "It's a thing."

    The girl's seat belt was straining across her middle. Sumin thought about unbuckling it. "She's asleep," she said again. "How can it be a thing?"

    Cam didn't answer, and they were both quiet for a few minutes. The Volkswagen vibrated as the speedometer climbed past sixty.

    Sumin said, "Are you really going to keep her?"

    "She's not a dog," Cam said. "If you say you're going to be responsible for someone, you do it. You don't just pass her off to someone else." Cam flipped her sun visor down, then flipped it back up again. Sumin couldn't figure out what her daughter was getting at.

    She said, "All I'm saying is that sometimes the responsible thing is to admit you're not up to the task. Sometimes that's the best thing."

    Cam didn't say anything.

    Sumin went on, whispering. "Even if her father's nowhere to be found, her mother's not dead. It's not like she has no one."

    Cam leaned forward over the wheel and talked quietly to the top of the dashboard. "She has no one here. In February, her mother had to go back to China—her student visa was up. If she could've stayed she would've. She wants Alice to be raised in the States. Guardianship is a way to do that. She's lived here since she was two as it is."

    Sumin fiddled with one of her silver and turquoise rings. She shook her head. "I don't think you understand all this as well as you should. What does that mean? You have Alice forever, or Mom just drops in whenever she wants and whooshes her away?"

    Cam took a breath. "We've been over all this," she said. "Her mother is my closest friend from graduate school. She wants to be with Alice. Permament moves to the States are not that easy for mainland Chinese. Study abroad, visits to see family, that's one thing. Staying, that's something different. It's not like she's just handing her daughter over." Here, she paused and looked at her mother.

    Sumin stared back.

    Cam went on. "It just isn't very likely the Chinese Government's going to agree to a permanent move anytime soon."

    "And what will you do when that happens?" Sumin asked.

    The question went unanswered.

    Sumin shook her head. "It's all very bizarre. Isn't it pretty unusual that she brought the kid with her in the first place?"

    Cam didn't answer.

    Sumin went on. "How well do you know this mother anyway? I've never heard you talk about her." She reached into her handbag at her feet and rummaged around. "And what kind of name is Alice? She's from China."

    Cam opened and closed her hands around the steering wheel. "She has a Chinese name; her mom just wanted her to fit in. To be like the other kids."

    Again, Sumin felt like they weren't talking about what she thought they were. She said, "And what do you tell Alice about all this?" She glanced back at the sleeping girl.

    "The truth," Cam said.

    Sumin snorted. "What does the six-year-old make of that?" she asked.

    Cam looked over her shoulder and changed lanes. "Six-year-olds can be pretty resilient," she said.

    Sumin felt warm. "So, she's handling it okay?" she asked, annoyed her daughter had set up the implied parallel.

    Cam looked straight ahead. "You know what?" she said. "I appreciate the concern; I do." She softened her tone. "But it really has nothing to do with you."

    Whether it was the kindness or the simplicity, either way, once again her daughter had left her with nothing to say.

* * *

    At my feet sat the Toyo. I hadn't used it in twelve years. The magazine had suggested I take the photos to accompany the article. Celine Arneaux turning seventy-five. Her granddaughter, twenty-five. The Return to the Cabin, as documented by Arneaux herself.

    I thought the idea obvious. I also thought they were perhaps humoring an old woman. I agreed. I couldn't stand the thought of someone else's miserable photographs of my cabin, my land, or Cam.

    Before photography, portraits on glass or porcelain were fired in the ovens, likenesses preserved forever. The photograph of my mother's father and his two brothers, now on my bureau, was the first thing she unpacked when we moved from Shanghai to Paris. In front of the three seated men, the photographer had arranged potted plum blossom, narcissi and chrysanthemums, emblematic of longevity, good fortune and a life of peace. Behind them hung a scroll with thick black characters: "Future generations, remember to stay united."

    When I was a child, my older Chinese relatives said that your soul was absorbed into the machine, and even if that didn't happen, you were sure to become very ill. When that photo of my grandfather and great-uncles had been taken, there'd been a doctor in attendance in case of harm. I told Cam stories like this but she, of course, already understood.

    I'd given my camera the most cursory of checkups. I planned to rely on mechanical excuses if necessary. I had dusted the ribs of the bellows with a wet fingertip, experimented with the rise and fall of the front standard. Who knew what I could expect of it after twelve years, but going on with the examination felt like trying to raise the dead. Afterwards I could taste on my finger the rubber and dust of the bellows.

    The first communication I received from the child, about five months ago, was a postcard of the Statue of Liberty, on which she had written: Dear Celine: Hello. My name is Alice. Did you have a garden in China? Can you help bring my mother to me? I had written back: In the garden of the Shanghai house, my mother planted lilacs. Acacia trees for shade. Metasequoia trees with tiny green buds. Forsythia, dahlias and pots of lilies and ferns in clusters along the wall. The day we left for Paris, she circled the garden, wiping leaves and even rocks with a damp cloth.

    Before that sad day, you could find her, and sometimes my father with her, sitting in wicker chairs arranged on the grass by quiet servants. I remember cushions. Coils of mosquito incense. Chrysanthemum tea in covered cups. Sparrows, and sometimes the sound of the cuckoo. Violin music coming out one of the open windows from the record player.

    I could see my mother placing a careful needle on the spinning disc.

    I shook my head and concentrated on the slow crawl of airplanes and baggage trucks outside.

    What was infuriating was the banality of old age. What was occurring to me had occurred to thousands of seventy-five-year-olds before me.

    If memories like these appeared now, unprovoked, what would happen at the cabin?

    Movement next to me. The young man sitting to my right had turned to lean towards me.

    "Excuse me," he said in English. "Celine Arneaux, right?" He offered a hand. "Steven Liu."

    I stared at his hand.

    "From Aperture." He took back his hand.

    My stomach dipped. I concentrated on communicating composure. How long had he been sitting there?

    "I know, I know," he went on. "You didn't want me tagging along." He put his hands up, as if surrendering. "That's cool. Don't worry; I'm not like, you know, lurking and stalking."

    He said it like it was a song, "Lurking and Stalking." "How reassuring," I said.

    He laughed and winked at me. Winked!

    "Here's the thing," he said, getting serious. "I just have one or two questions. Small things really. Just some gaps, you know—"

    I stared.

    He went on. "Just a couple of questions about your mother."

    I stood up. "Excuse me," I said. "As I made clear on the phone, I prefer to travel alone." I put my handbag over my arm and walked away before he could answer.

    I made my way to the ladies' room carefully, resisting the temptation to feel my way along the corridor walls. I closed a stall door and concentrated on returning my breathing to normal. My mother? What possible reason could he have for wanting information about her? What if he were there when I came out?

    I hadn't slept last night. I never slept well before a trip, and ghosts required more space and time than dreams. What had I been thinking, agreeing to this article? It was taunting the dragon at the mouth of the cave.

    Three Cam photos hung beside my bedroom window: the first from each book. The treasure in the cave beyond the dragon: the possibility of recapturing it was apparently too seductive to resist.

    I stood up straighter, and looked at the back of the stall door. This is ridiculous, I thought. I do not behave this way.

    I walked out of the ladies' room, keeping myself from glancing around.

    The child's age hadn't escaped my notice. Six. Cam's age for the second book. Stupid. It meant nothing.

    The child had never responded to my description of my mother's garden. Again, my mother.

    My seat in the waiting area was empty. So was his. He had moved across the room to a bank of pay phones. He was talking to someone. I sat back down and rechecked my ticket. He was off the phone now. He looked in my direction, but stayed across the room.

    I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them again. Think about something else, I told myself.

    My mother showed me how to look at things. In Shanghai and later in Paris, I cherished outings with her to the markets, but mostly to the public parks, staying out late in the afternoons to hear her list the names of flowers and watch her point at them with her heavy umbrella of tungoil-painted canvas. Pomegranates, roses, oleanders, midget willows. Pay attention, she would say from her perch on the cool stone bench, her tiny feet barely reaching the gravel path: paying attention to the familiar is as valuable as discovering something new.

    In Paris in the late 1920s, her appearance and language attracted the glances of passersby. In the thirties, looking so foreign was even more of an issue. People consistently mistook her for Indochinese or Japanese. My desire to hear what she knew gave way to a desire for her invisibility and silence. After the city was liberated, my father wrote to me: Mother had to stay inside, as the crowds were throwing anyone who looked Japanese out of windows and off of roofs.

    A twinge. I held the back of my neck. What could he know about my mother? I was tired. I wouldn't sleep on the plane. Perhaps a walk would help. Would he follow? And the thought of young women in the airport cafés, sipping coffee, touching their tablemates, made my limbs heavy. Would every instance of intimacy always fatigue me?

    He was on the phone again, a notebook open in front of him. He was taking a lot of notes. He glanced over at me every so often.

    The Virginia air now in July would be slow and wet. Lingering and sticky like fine damp sand. Even the trees perspiring. What would be in bloom? Flowers I'd forgotten. What had happened to the wisteria? I closed my eyes, attempting a tour. The uneven stone wall of my studio. On their lattice frames, rambler roses: red, yellow and white. Below, irises and Sweet William.

    In 1966, the summer Cam turned one, we discovered when we arrived from the city that the ivy vines had found their way through the upstairs windows and across the nursery's sloped ceiling. I used it for the first photo in One. Cam in her crib, that thin vine making its way across the ceiling behind her.

    Even the Communist Chinese were admirers of my early work, the landscapes. After Cam, they weren't as pleased, but they remained respectful. I was a strong and consistent supporter. The Cam photos held more for the Americans. My job was not to please everyone.

    This girl, Alice, was full Chinese.

    In a week, I'd be seventy-five. My mother had died at seventy-two. I mouthed her name—Huying. One of its meanings: to echo each other from afar.

    He was off the phone and making his way towards me.

    I closed my eyes and willed images of Cam. Cameron, I said. Cameron. Again and again, like a blanket over a fire.

* * *

The Last Picture

A twelve-year-old in heavy makeup wears a traditional Chinese silk dress. It is several sizes too large. She holds the excess fabric bunched at her hip.

    Beneath the dress, she is naked.

    She is barefoot and stands as if in fourth position. She is out of focus, attenuated by the heat waves of the bonfire beside her, taller than she is.

    In the foreground, the focus is on some determined mongrel flowers.

* * *

    Sumin stole glances at Alice while the girl slept. She was flushed, her bangs sticking to her forehead. Sumin had forgotten how much heat small children generated. She remembered checking on Cam in her crib, alarmed at the baby's temperature even though she knew there was nothing to be alarmed about.

    Cam glanced over at her. "Nice hat," she said.

    It was a tennis hat with five or six caterpillars embroidered around the rim. Sumin reached up to touch it. "What's wrong with this hat?" she asked.

    Cam turned up the air-conditioning. "Worms?" she said.

    Sumin still had her hand on her hat like she was worried about wind. "Caterpillars," she said.

    Alice clacked her teeth together. Cam didn't comment on it. Sumin assumed it was another "thing."

    "You know," she said, "if you hadn't been in such a rush to get back on the road, we wouldn't have left her."

    "Mother," Cam said. "You let her go to the bathroom in some gas station by herself." She shook her head. "It's so typical, it's barely worth commenting on."

    "What's that supposed to mean?" Sumin said, despite her embarrassment at their elementary-school dynamics.

    From the backseat, Alice said, "I don't want to go to Virginia."

    Cam said, "It'll be great. I told you. It's where I went as a little girl. There's a pond, and horses, and cows, and a big forest, and—"

    Alice said, "I know. I heard you before. I still don't want to go."

    Cam looked at her mother.

    Sumin turned to Alice. "I know," she said. "I don't want to go either. But it's just something we both gotta do."

    "Thanks, Sumin," Cam said. "That's a big help."

    "And I don't like Celine," Alice added.

    Sumin laughed.

    "You're the one who wanted to write to her," Cam said.

    Alice didn't answer.

    "You'll like her when you meet her," Cam said.

    Sumin snorted.

    Cam ran her hand through her hair. It was a new cut. It made her look like an Asian Louise Brooks. Sumin liked it.

    "Why are you here anyway?" Cam asked. "It's not like you needed to be."

    Sumin couldn't stand this anymore. Over Cam's protests, she insisted they pull off at a depressing highway restaurant in Maryland. Alice said she didn't care what they did.

    Inside the restaurant, they hovered by the door. A waitress made no move to greet them. There was an S-shaped counter on one end and circular booths on the other. In between, a metal salad bar looked like it had been wiped with a wet, dirty cloth.

    "Oh, yeah," Cam said. "I want to eat here."

    They took a booth by the window. Alice immediately went up on her knees, her face to the glass as if even the parking lot would be better than this.

    Sumin took in the counter area. "A lot of truckers," she said.

    Cam said, "I'm sticking to something on my chair." She held up her plastic-covered menu. There was dried food on it. Alice perked up momentarily, then went back to the window.

    Sumin pretended none of this bothered her, and when the waitress came over, she ordered more than she wanted.

    Cam ordered french fries and watched the waitress walk away. There were miniature jukeboxes on the tables. As a distraction, Sumin fed a quarter into theirs and punched up two songs. The first began, faintly.

    "Oh, God, Sumin," Cam said. "Michael Bolton?"

    "He's good," Sumin said, getting warm again.

    "Yeah," Cam said, turning back to the menu. "Like you know."

    Sumin pulled a WetNap from a Baggie in her purse and gave her face, neck and hands a thorough wipe-down. She tapped Alice on the shoulder and handed her a small tape measure on a key chain. "Here," she said. "Measure some things." Alice went to work.

    Cam watched truckers at the counter until the waitress brought their coffees. Sumin poured some of hers into her saucer and then added six half-and-halfs to what remained. Cam watched and then returned her attention to the counter. Alice insisted that she needed to do the same thing. Cam tried to talk her out of it, then ordered another coffee.

    Watching Alice repeat her coffee ritual touched Sumin.

    Alice asked for a WetNap.

    Sumin gave her the whole bag.

    Alice wiped her face, her neck, her hands.

    Sumin couldn't remember the last time someone had imitated her. "I like reading biographies of dead people," she said to Cam.

    Cam looked at her.

    Alice sipped her concoction and announced she wanted some milk. With a straw, she told the waitress.

    Sumin went on. "Everyone seems equal. Like the slate's been wiped clean, and we're all starting over."

    Cam looked back at the counter. Then she said, "Do you try to be like this, or does it come naturally?"

    Their food came. Sumin's sandwich was better than she'd expected, and Alice was eating her cheeseburger, and her second song was playing. She gave conversation with her daughter another try.

    "I'm thinking," she started, and then paused to give Cam time to focus on her. "I'm thinking of asking Celine for something."

    Cam stopped cutting Alice's meat. "Wait," she said. "We can't all be asking her for things."

    "That's very generous," Sumin said, and went on anyway. "I'm thinking about asking if she'd be interested in doing a kind of ..." She faltered and realized this was the first time she'd tried to put it into words. She looked away. "A kind of an interview. An intimate interview."

    "Isn't Grady already doing that?" Cam asked.

    "What's 'intimate'?" Alice asked.

    Cam blew on a french fry. Her interest was dwindling back to expected levels. "It's when two people are so close that they'll do anything for each other."

    Alice seemed to be thinking.

    It wasn't the way Sumin would've defined the word. But she hurried on, worried that she'd already lost Cam's interest. "I guess I imagined something more intimate. You know, where she and I would do a Truffaut/Hitchcock kind of thing."

    Cam nodded, and sopped a huge amount of ketchup onto a fry. She drank about half of her water. She tapped Alice's plate with her fork, reminding the gift to eat. She ate another fry.

    "Is that so impossible?" Sumin finally said.

    Alice said she had to go to the bathroom.

    Cam looked at Sumin.

    Alice picked up on it. "I can go alone," she said. "Just tell me where it is."

    Cam said, "I'll go with you."

    Sumin watched them walk across the restaurant. The sight of Cam leading Alice by the hand gave her a pit in her stomach. Inexplicable, but enough to make her even more determined. She took off her hat and folded it into her bag.

    "Why is that so outlandish?" she asked when they got back.

    Cam got Alice resettled. "Eat your food," she said. She turned to her mother. "Where's the hat?"

    "Well?" Sumin said.

    "For starters," Cam said, "who are you gonna be—Truffaut or Hitchcock?"

    Who raised such a daughter? she thought, while Cam finished her french fries, and Sumin got ready, as always, to pick up the check. Who taught her such contempt for me? And the answer came back immediately: I did.


What People are Saying About This

Richard Howard

Nowadays, gymnasiums are not all build of bricks, or sealed by padlocks; the most recent, the most discreet are to be found in fiction, e.g., Karen Shepard's novel. How good it is to have the news from this other evil empire, especially when the bulletins are so brisks, so bright, and so brave.
—(Richard Howard)

Margot Livesey

I loved An Empire of Women. From the first page, I was captivated by Karen Shepard's unique voice. With what wonderful artistry and suspense she weaves her story, and how fully she inhabits her difficult characters. This is an exhilarating debut.
—(Margot Livesey)

Ron Hansen

Not since Virginia Woolf have the snares and scars of familial relationships been rendered with such brilliance, sensitivity, and icy understatement.

Rosellen Brown

"An Empire of Women introduces us to three fascinating women whose quirks and prickles are boldly set forth, the three generations attracting and devouring one another like a family of gorgeous, omnivorous flowers. Karen Shepard's debut novel is a bravura performance by an author who writes with uncanny authority and courage."

Reading Group Guide

Talented, strong-willed, unabashedly exotic, three generations of Arneaux women are united in their passion for the arts and their Sino-French roots, yet are emotionally at odds with one another. Then a child enters their lives, whose future is theirs to decide and who offers them a chance to make peace among themselves.

Karen Shepard's captivating debut novel captures the reunion of photographer Celine Arneaux, a French-Chinese émigré, her disaffected Asian-American daughter, Sumin, and granddaughter, Cameron, at a family cabin in Virginia. The cabin is where, a decade earlier, Celine had photographed Cameron for a famous series of child portraits. Joining them for a week in the country on the occasion of Celine's 75th birthday are two outsiders: Sumin's lover Grady, a journalist who is writing a profile of Celine; and Alice, an appealing and poised six-year-old Chinese girl temporarily entrusted to Cameron.

Alice, whose real mother has been forced to return to China, provides ample opportunity for the adults to show their better side. But the need to decide Alice's future also unleashes a ruthlessness that has marked the family's history since the Cultural Revolution, and forces the exposure of a long-buried secret. In a stark setting, where they are faced with no one but themselves-their biggest obstacle and best hope for making peace with one another-mothers and daughters achieve a kind of understanding and a new respect for one another.

With wonderful emotional acuity, artistry and suspense, Shepard weaves a compelling tale of custody, collaboration and the ferocity with which we sometimes sacrifice loved ones to gain our own ends.

Q> Were you more sympathetic toward certain characters based solely on the prologue? Did your opinion of those characters change by novel's end?

Q>Squeezed between a mother who is a world-famous photographer, a daughter who is a gifted painter, and a lover who is a writer, Sumin is the only adult at the cabin who lacks discernible creative talent. What role does this "shortcoming" play in the story?

Q>The verbal exchanges between Cameron and her mother, as between Sumin and her mother, are brusque verging on rude. Were you shocked? In what ways does the novel make a comment on mothers and daughters?

Q> In view of the circumstances surrounding Alice's guardianship, and what we learn about Cameron's childhood, which of the three women would be the most suitable surrogate parent?

Q>Apart from Grady, male characters are largely absent from the book. Did you find the female characters overly skeptical of men? Are their views borne out or reinforced by what happens in the novel?

Q>What impact does Grady's presence at the cabin have on our understanding of Celine's life and other events alluded to in the book?

Q>All three women display a propensity for faultfinding. How is this trait expressed, in words or actions? Does the novel suggest a source for this attitude? What other attributes do the women share?

Q>The cabin almost becomes an additional character in the novel. What significance does being at the cabin hold for each of the women, as well as for the outsiders, Grady and Alice? How does the bucolic setting affect their behavior?

Q>hat is the significance of the descriptions of the photos that are interspersed throughout the novel? What recurring themes or symbolic items are present in Celine's photographs and what insight do they provide?

Q>The events in the novel take place during a single week but are influenced a great deal by things that have occurred in the past. What role does history and the passage of time play in the novel?

Q>What is Alice's role in the story? Do you find her as persuasive as other characters?

Discussion questions provided courtesy of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Karen Shepard is a Chinese American born in New York City. Her fiction has appeared in Southwest Review and Mississippi Review, and received honorable mention in Best American Short Stories 1995. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, the novelist Jim Shepard, and their two sons.

From the Author: "The initial inspiration for this novel was Sally Mann's 1992 collection of photographs, Immediate Family. I was drawn to these beautiful and often disturbing photos of Mann's three children on and around the family home in Virginia, and was curious about the public response to the photos. People were offended; people found them pornographic.

I found them complicated and arresting. The youngest child was about three or four in most of the photos, and I began to think about what the relationship of that child and Mann must have been like during the shoots. What would it be like to grow up with your mother behind a camera, a camera that was directed at you?

I started a short story with that youngest child as the protagonist, but I propelled her into the future, and tried to imagine her as a thirty-year-old. What would the effects of those summers of photographs have been on her? What would her adult relationship with her mother be like? As I wrote, I soon realized that my interest was larger than a short story. The photographer became an older woman, her career long behind her. Her subject became a granddaughter rather than a daughter. A mother, squeezed from both sides, appeared. All three women became, as I am, mixed bag of American, Asian and European. I kept the setting, both because I wanted to stay connected to the original inspiration for the novel, and because my mother had owned a farm in Virginia for a while, and I had a fair knowledge of the place.

I began to read-and read, and read. (The reading never stopped: thanks to a comment from my editor, I was reading up on life in occupied Paris as late as the week before delivering the final manuscript.) I knew something about China-my grandmother is the writer Han Suyin; my mother was born there; I have visited my family there four times and done lots of reading about its history-but I knew almost nothing about photography. I was especially interested in women photographers and the particular ways they may, or may not have, balanced art and family, public and private. I read technical articles and books and photographers' journals, trying to learn about their voices. I looked at image after image, especially of family photographs. And I read more about China, especially first person accounts from the Cultural Revolution and accounts of mixed marriages.

And, gradually, decisions began to be made. I realized the novel would take place in a very short span of time, a single week in a single place, almost like a chamber piece. I wanted the hardened dynamics between the three women to come under that kind of pressure; that kind of constriction. I wanted a sealed world, but I didn't want their world to be absent of possibility. So I came up with Alice, a six-year-old girl left behind in America by her Chinese mother, who I imagined would serve as a kind of lightning rod for the three women. She would allow the surfacing of their familiar dynamics, but she would also supply them with another chance, a chance to be better people than they'd been in the past. The addition of Alice also meant that I got to immortalize many of my seven-year-old stepson's most memorable lines.

As I traveled through that process of research, note-taking, writing, I began to realize I was learning as much about myself and my relationships with my own mother, my own children, my own ethnic identity as I was about Chinese history or photography. And, perhaps more importantly, I was making discoveries about my mother's relationship with her mother, and my grandmother's relationship with her parents, and so on, back into my complicated web of ancestors. My mother, for example, has always wanted to be a writer. My grandmother is a writer, and now I was one too. What must it feel like for my mother, to be squeezed from both sides like that?

Of course, imagining yourself in someone else's shoes isn't the same as discovering the truth about those others. But it is discovering a kind of truth about them-what Tim O'Brien has called "story truth." I didn't, for example, research the details of my own family's background. But I did find myself imagining their lives in ways I hadn't before. As many writers before me have pointed out, there is probably nothing more profound than imagining other people's lives, and nothing less profound. The favor of doing that might be the best we can do for each other."

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An Empire of Women 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Renowned photographer Celine Arneux reached the epitome of fame with her controversial pictures of her family. The collection includes a provocative set of photos of her granddaughter Cameron as a child. Now the wheels of fate have turned. Grady, the lover of Sumin, the middle generation between Celine and Cameron, is doing a magazine article on the celebrated artist and her work. The three women agree to meet in the Virginia cabin site of Celine¿s most famous work.

Also at the cabin is six-year old Alice, whose guardian is Cameron. The three women, whose relationships between each other are poor, use the child as a battlefield as they battle to gain Alice¿s affection and the right to claim victory. Any deep reconciliation could mean heartbreak so the child is the pawn and the salvation in this emotional war.

If the reader wants action, they need to pass on AN EMPIRE OF WOMEN. However, if the fan desires a deep look into the emotions of three mixed raced women, this novel is for them. The prime cast is all fully developed and each one's feelings understandable since Karen Shepard deftly peels away their feelings through their actions towards one another and especially towards the child. Alice serves as a final chance at redemption or a final failure. Ms. Shepard will leave her admiring audience to question the impact of his or her heritage.

Harriet Klausner