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REVIEW: The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho

Dear Zen Cho:

Back in 2012 you sent DA a blurb about your self-published novella. I remember being intrigued by the excerpt and I meant to request it, but apparently I never did. Stupid me. But it stuck in my mind, and a few months later I bought my own copy and finally read this sparkling, original story. But when I sat down to review it, I found that you had made it exclusive to Amazon and I couldn’t review it for Dear Author. Then, a few months ago, I checked again and not only was Amazon exclusivity gone, it was also available as a free read at your website if readers didn’t want to pay for it. I strongly suggest that readers try a sample, and if they like it, buy it, because we want publishers and other authors to know how eager we are to read books of this quality and type.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen ChoGeok-Huay Yeo, AKA Jade, is a Chinese Malaysian woman living in early 1920s London. Not only has she persuaded her loving but protective parents to let her come to England for college, she is staying on and avoiding their attempts to marry her off. She supports herself, barely, by writing fashion articles for a women’s weekly and reviewing books for the Oriental Literary Review, which is edited by Ravi, a south Indian Brahmin.

Jade reviews and eviscerates the new novel by Sebastian Hardie, a well-connected Bloomsbury-set writer. Hardie is intrigued and invites Jade to a party, where he proceeds to charm her. The fact that he’s married is a minor hiccup, not least because his wife doesn’t insist on marital fidelity (she has outside interests of her own). Jade fends off Hardie for a while, but when she runs into him in Paris she gives in to his advances, as much out of curiosity as affection, with the inevitable results. But while the outcome is conventional, the story takes an unexpected turn after that.

The novella is written in the form of a diary, and consequently we see developments entirely from Jade’s POV. Her voice is dry, self-aware, and witty. There are regular reminders that we are not reading through the eyes of a standard romance heroine:

You can’t ever tell people you think you are pretty. Even if you are pretty you have to flutter and be modest. Fortunately here nobody thinks I am pretty, so my thinking I am pretty is almost an act of defiance; it makes me feel quite noble. I have that slim bending willowy figure that looks so good in a robe, and smooth shining black hair like a lacquered helmet, and a narrow face with a pointy chin and black slashes of eyebrows.

It took me a long time to realise I was pretty, because Ma and Pa never thought so. Even the fair skin they didn’t like–I’m not the right kind of fair. The Shanghainese girls on cigarette cards are like downy white peaches. I am like a dead person. This was disturbing on a child. Now I am an adult, I am like an interesting modern painting, but my parents are keen on moon-faces and perms.

They are the nicest parents, though. They always told me I was clever.

Sebastian is presented as the quintessential romance hero, down to his appearance, so it’s no wonder Jade is attracted to him:

I’d seen his picture in Vogue and so had known he was good-looking, in the style of a Romantic poet living in the Lake District. He had a long face with dark hair curling over a white forehead, and wrinkles around his eyes that made him look melancholy when solemn and sweet when he smiled. But he wasn’t at all grand.

The most surprising thing about him in person was that he struck one as being sincere. He had a very grave, intense look that, when directed at one, made one feel one ought to say something interesting to deserve it.

As the story unfolds, it’s not Hardie’s married state that renders him ineligible for hero status so much as his personality, which hews to what most romance heroes would probably be like in real life. Jade is quite willing to let him go and move on, but circumstances make that difficult.

Jade is not completely alone (she has her social-climbing aunt), but she is somewhat isolated. When she describes herself as having three friends, you believe her, and it’s not because she’s not someone you’d want to be friends with, but because someone like her doesn’t fit easily into the prevailing social environment.

I don’t want to give away the second half of the story, because it’s so much fun to watch it unfold. So I’ll just count the ways in which this is not a genre-conforming historical romance novel:

  • The heroine barely supports herself through her literary and commercial writing,  because it doesn’t pay well, but she’s good at it.
  • There is extra-marital sex and adultery, and none of it is secret.
  • The main characters cover three different ethnic/racial groups, and no one is mixed race. The non-white characters’ reasons to be in London make sense, given that this is during the heyday of the British empire.
  • The heroine contemplates having an abortion and doesn’t angst over it.

The ending is a little bit abrupt, and we don’t really get to know the hero, although I definitely believed that the hero and heroine were in love with each other, and I cautiously believed in their HEA (it won’t be easy). And the story is short, especially given all the events that transpire. I would have loved to read a longer version that developed some of the storyline more fully.

I’ve read a number of stories set in World War I and the 1920s now. This one really captures the flavor of the era, not so much through historical touchstones as through the language, relationships, and prose style. It recalls Heyer in some ways, Woodhouse in others. It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle. I’ve read the story three times now, and each time it both moves me and makes me smile. The author has written a number of SFF short stories and novellas, as well as at least one other historical short story, and I’m furiously tracking down her backlist. Grade: A-

~ Sunita

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

19 Comments

  1. wikkidsexycool
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 11:46:12

    Sold.
    I love the author’s voice from the small sample provided. I love the cover, and I adore the storyline/time period, so I’m BUYING this book!

    Thanks for reviewing it Sunita, and bringing it to the public, because otherwise I would have missed it.

  2. Tanya
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 12:47:16

    SOLD 2.0. I am always looking for things off the beaten path, and this fits the bill nicely. Plus, I love a good novella, since my time is not my own.

  3. Sirius
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 14:46:53

    Oh sold! Thanks.

  4. nasanta
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 15:02:12

    Thanks for the review! Read it online and enjoyed it. Want a copy for my own now.

  5. lakaribane
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 15:27:20

    The main characters cover three different ethnic/racial groups, and no one is mixed race

    This sold me!!! AT LAST! In Romancelandia, it often seems like you just can’t find 100% interracial couples.

  6. Anne V
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 16:08:31

    Sold! Thank you so much for this review – I never would’ve found this without it and I loved the sample.

  7. Janine
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 17:22:02

    Okay, me too. This sounds fresh and original. Sold, sold, sold!

  8. Sunita
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 18:37:47

    Thanks, everyone! I really hope you all like it, and do come back and report if you get a chance.

    I also wanted to add that if you go to Cho’s website you can get a sense of her other writings. I just started listening to a (free) podcast narration of a shortish story about an undead teenage girl who lives with her equally undead Chinese aunties. It’s great so far.

  9. Kaetrin
    Nov 29, 2013 @ 23:26:55

    Sold. I bought it too. :)

  10. Rina
    Nov 30, 2013 @ 05:33:24

    What’s the part about infidelity? How is it justified? Usually I’d never read something like that but this sounds good otherwise.

  11. Ros
    Nov 30, 2013 @ 05:53:56

    @Rina: It’s this bit in Sunita’s review: “The fact that he’s married is a minor hiccup, not least because his wife doesn’t insist on marital fidelity (she has outside interests of her own). Jade fends off Hardie for a while, but when she runs into him in Paris she gives in to his advances, as much out of curiosity as affection, with the inevitable results. But while the outcome is conventional, the story takes an unexpected turn after that.”

  12. Rina
    Nov 30, 2013 @ 06:01:14

    Reading comprehension fail. Thanks

  13. Little Red
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 12:35:49

    Sold and bought since it’s selling for $2.99 on BN.com.

  14. Joopdeloop
    Dec 01, 2013 @ 23:57:38

    Read the vampire short, bought this one. OMG, thank you so much! (Hooked when she associated the taste of durian with falling in love. Plus I have many of those aunties, minus the vampirism, and Hokkien is sort of our dialect-close enough to Taiwanese.) Zen Cho is so spot on. Can’t wait to consume the rest of her backlist, and more please! Excellent find.

  15. Sunita
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 06:32:50

    @Joopdeloop: I’m so glad! That’s exactly how I feel. She has links to all her stories on her blog; some are very short, but I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read so far. I’m trying to space them out so they last longer.

    Did you try the podcast? The narration is excellent. I was stifling my laughter on the morning commute.

  16. Dear Author reviewed Jade Yeo! | Zen Cho
    Dec 02, 2013 @ 09:01:54

    […] already done some bouncing about this on Twitter, but look at that! Dear Author reviewed The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo, and liked it! I am profoundly chuffed, and am making this post primarily so I can reblog the […]

  17. Rebecca (Another one)
    Dec 06, 2013 @ 09:34:25

    I really enjoyed this. Thanks for the recommendation.

  18. Sirius
    Dec 08, 2013 @ 21:47:46

    I really liked it – definitely felt like I was transported in another time and really liked the heroine. Thanks so much Sunita.

  19. C is for Zen Cho | Olivia Waite
    Apr 03, 2014 @ 13:51:18

    […] Yeo. It has been a long time since a book has charmed me so thoroughly, on so many levels. This Dear Author review by Sunita sums it up nicely: “It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s […]

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