Call it a "second-coming-of-age" story, in which a settled married woman reassesses and then restructures a previously unexamined life, finding liberty and then self-fulfillment as she leaves behind her familiar constraints. It's popular enough to be a subgenre, and this first novel by Chinese American author Chai is an interesting addition. Possessed of a good-fortune face, according to her imposing Auntie Gao, Lin Jun feels anything but fortunate despite her work, husband, and beloved son. A middle-school teacher in China, she befriends Cynthia, an American woman who has arrived to teach English at her school. Influenced by her formative years in the Cultural Revolution, by her new American friend, and by an awakening sense of self, Lin Jun feels awkward, stupid, and incapable yet dreams of leaving behind her unfulfilling marriage and creating a new life for herself. This novel reflects attitudes and experiences foreign to most Western readers in the context of a familiar, popular story. For substantial fiction collections.Janet Ingraham, Worthington P.L., Ohio
A richly detailed but emotionally tepid first novel about a Chinese woman who decides to leave her bright, unhappy husband and cycle off alone in search of happiness.
By current Chinese standards, Lin-Jun has everything: a job teaching English in a Nanjing middle school; a husband, Shao Hong, with a white-collar job; an adorable young son, Bao-bao; and an apartment of their own. Life should be bliss, then, especially for a 31-year-old woman whose parents were victims of the Cultural Revolution. (Lin-Jun spent her childhood in the countryside with Auntie Gao, a gruff but loving friend of her mother's, who insisted that Lin-Jun learn to read and study.) While she enjoys her work, however, some colleagues are jealous of her; although her marriage began as a love match, Shao Hong, dissatisfied in his job, has lately been avoiding his wife and working late; and Bao-bao is healthy and loving but, though only five, spends the week at a boarding school. Lin-Jun's only source of pleasure now is riding her bicycle, her Flying Pigeonan "ally when the silence of [her] apartment becomes too much to bear." The arrival of Cynthia, an American exchange teacher for whom Lin-Jun is appointed interpreter, crystallizes these discontents. Cynthia urges Lin-Jun to change her life, move to another city, and leave Shao-Hong. A humiliating job interview in nearby Shanghai and her in-laws' revelations about the painful childhood of Shao-Jong weaken her resolve. Then, however, despite the disapproval of her family and colleagues, she decides after all that she no longer loves her husband and asks for a divorce. If she stays married, she says, she "would not be happy. . . would never feel free."
A timely setting and elegant writing don't help a protagonist who looks good, talks persuasively, but somehow never comes alive. A disappointing debut.