Feng has to marry her sister’s fiancée. Sister died, leaving the powerful Sang family without a wife for their up-and-coming son and heir. Sister was older and vivacious, cunning and the epitome of a vixen. Feng is just a simple girl who is not ready to marry. Sister had been groomed her whole life for this- Feng was never supposed to marry. She was the second daughter. All time, effort and money went into Sister, leaving Feng to shrink in Sister’s cold shadow. But Sister died and now Feng must marry Xiong Fa, leaving behind her childish romance with the peasant, Bi. She must learn to sink or swim in the Sang family’s unforgiving household. With a gentle poetic tone reminiscent of old China, All the Flower’s in Shanghai is a beautiful novel that follows one woman’s struggle to reclaim the life she once knew.
Set in China in the 1920s and 1930s, the novel is a portrait of what traditional China looked like before it was swallowed up in Communism. There is a simple beauty in Duncan Jepson’s writing. A lilting narrative voice almost feels like it has been translated from Mandarin, which helps give the book an authentic feel. I enjoyed reading about Feng, and could sympathize with her coming of age, being thrown into a life that was not supposed to be hers. As she desperately tries to fill Sister’s shoes, she comes to a great realization: Sister wasn’t mean because she was born that way. All the pampering and attention made her that way. In some ways Jepson is right- spoiling a person makes them selfish. But Jepson’s tone implies that we are all born good and nurture turns us, but I prefer a different interpretation: we are all capable of becoming evil. It is our nature, but certain treatments can allow us to indulge more easily into this sin.
The theme throughout the book revolves around forgiveness and regret. Feng must forgive her parents, the Sang family, and herself. The greatest tragedy perhaps is that she never does. Feng started out as an innocent, sweet girl, but her new life made her bitter and cold. In the end she is sorry. She wants her daughter to live a better life than she did. But she never stops blaming herself and everyone instead of making the best of her circumstances. Although Feng is loveable, some of her character flaws made me dislike her. I don’t know it that was Jepson’s intention, but when Feng attempts to explain (through 1st person narration) why she did what she did, I ended up disliking her even more. But maybe that’s my problem, not Jepson’s.
Feng hates those who are weak: Xiong Fa, her grandfather, and maybe even herself. Xiong Fa only did what his parents expected of him, whether it hurt Feng or not. And Feng’s grandfather knew young Feng would be sold out to marry Xiong Fa but he did nothing. He didn’t act on his convictions his whole life and wasn’t about to start then. Feng herself can be accused of the same thing. She had the power to refuse, to say no, to run away. But she didn’t. Towards the end of the book, she does run away from her life, desperately trying to return to her life as a child. But she cannot. She lives out the last ten years of her life almost starving to death, working for the communist revolution. Although the book was marketed as being set in the revolution during China, it was really only covered in the last few chapters.
Another thing that bothered me was how much time elapsed in the book. It covers forty to fifty years, with some chapters chronicling one day and others ten years. I wanted a little more consistency from Jepson. He seemed to have bit off more than he could chew in trying to cover Feng’s entire life.
To me, the end of the story was desperately depressing. Maybe I expected an idealized version of life, but I felt that in the end, the novel held no meaning. The last page is entirely unnecessary, consisting of a letter to Feng’s daughter spelling out exactly what I thought the book was trying to say. It was just silly. Don’t write something saying “Don’t live like I did, make good choices,”. A good ending to me, is profound and leaves the reader thinking about the implications of the book and the message. Let me do some of the work Jepson! You spelled it out way too clearly. The book was a good first novel, and many of the elements came together beautifully. The ending to me was disappointing however, which is most unfortunate because those last words are the ones the reader remembers most of all. They convey the final sense of the novel. It was a shame that the end of the book left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.