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REVIEW:  My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin

REVIEW: My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin

“Yan Ling tries hard to be servile–it’s what’s expected of a girl of her class. Being intelligent and strong-minded, she finds it a constant battle.

Proud Fei Long is unimpressed by her spirit–until he realizes she’s the answer to his problems. He has to deliver the emperor a “princess.” In two months can he train a tea girl to pass as a noblewoman?

Yet it’s hard to teach good etiquette when all Fei Long wants to do is break it, by taking this tea girl for his own….”

Dear Ms. Lin,

Some my favorite movies use the “Pygmalion” theme so I was psyched to see a Tang Dynasty version of it. I love how you’ve transplanted it to China and appropriated the heqin marriages as a springboard for the plot. Yan Ling is a tea shop girl instead of a flower girl and ultimately doesn’t need to pass herself off as a Duchess at an Embassy Ball – she needs to become a grand Lady in order to be accepted as a Princess. Fei Long isn’t an irascible language teacher but a man desperate to salvage the family honor which demands that a sister be delivered to become a foreign bride. Still there are hints of Eliza Doolittle learning to speak and walk with a book on her head. Yan Ling must master her sleeves and her posture. She’s got to lose the dialect in her speech and try to learn to write. I also wondered how on earth she’d master learning to write and read Chinese in such a short amount of time but the ultimate goal revealed by Fei Long, and the way this is used to reveal how his feelings grow for her from an early stage, make sense.

My Fair Concubine;¬†Fei Long’s so focused and dutiful – in what he demands of himself as the only son of his father and also as master of the Chang family and servants. What’s expected of him by others adds another layer and after that is his sense of duty to provide for Yan now that she’s under his protection in his house. Then there are the boundaries he keeps between himself and any hint of taking advantage of women not of his class in society. Oh, and there’s also what will be demanded of Yan in her substitute place as the family daughter who is supposed to be a marriage alliance bride for the empire. Fei Long’s got a lot of obstacles in his path to his HEA.

And it takes a woman like Yan Ling to ultimately shatter his rigid control. From their first meeting she shows that she won’t let herself be thought of as nothing. She does know her place in society but she won’t let herself be disrespected. She’s aware that the opportunity presented to her is more than she ever dared to hope for – a woman of position who will never again worry about her place in a household, her source of food or clothes, or how much work she has to do in order to be allowed to stay. The wolf isn’t going to howl at her door anymore. But the longer her training goes on, the more she feels the Chang household is her home and that the people there are her family. The price she’ll have to pay for her new life, she discovers, is going to be steep.

Yan Ling challenges Fei Long without being the dreaded feisty romance heroine. She needles him to accept the changes in her. She makes him see that she’s not an humble tea girl, a squashed bean bun on the road of life, an insignificant female any longer. The training has reinvented her and awakened the true woman inside of her. She’s becoming Fei Long’s consort battleship. She puts him in his place, refuses to let him see her as lesser than he is – in short she shows him her new found strength of self.

But then what? Yan and Fei Long know, individually, that they’re falling in love – though you hide Fei’s true feelings for a bit longer, but how can they resolve their love with the duty demanded of him and the promise she’s made? Loss of respect in the city and the chance for advancement in the Imperial household will doom the Chang family to ignominy and thus endanger the entire household. How can Fei Long allow that of servants who have been in their employ for generations? How can Yan reduce the people she’s come to love to being pieced out to other households or being as hungry as she once was? Her sense of duty to the Chang name and people is growing day by day. The answer was staring everyone in the face the whole time yet while my mind was furiously debating if Fei Long and Yan would run or stay, it never crossed my mind. It’s an elegantly simple solution and I’m smacking myself that I never thought of it.

Yan and Fei Long are good for each other. She loosens him up and gets him to laugh again as well as want to confide in her while he shakes up her practical side a little. He’s the first one to recognize her audaciousness and then see it as a strength. She’s got as strong a personality as he does and probably won’t let him get away with shit.

I enjoyed the secondary characters too. Spirited Dao, irreverent Li Bai Shen with a tiny hint of Jackie Chan?, devoted Old Man Liang – they flesh out the story with believability, humor and love. Fei Long might feel himself bound to take care of them but they also take care of or stand by him when he needs it.

The wealth of detail included in the story is staggering when I look back after finishing the book: everyday things and great important things. There is enough explanation for what is needed to be in the book but the stuff doesn’t stagnate into an info dump. After doing a little internet investigation, I can also see why you have chosen the Tang Dynasty for the setting of your stories so far. There are a few things I’m curious about. Why are Yan Ling and Fei Long’s names not translated whereas Pearl’s is? What is the name of the evil money lender? It showed up on my Sony as Z?u. What is the 10 suns archery contest? What kind of game is xiangqi? Are the names of the gardens and nunnery historical or from your imagination? I’m still not sure I entirely understand why Lady Min leaving the household for a nunnery would cast the Chang family into shame. Because they would be thought to not be taking care of the household members? Unable to afford her upkeep? Casting her off? What exactly was the role of a concubine in this age? More like a mistress? Or a second wife?

This is the first full length story of yours I’ve read and I enjoyed it very much. I hope Yan Ling regains the sense of curiosity and wonder that Fei Long discovers he enjoys so much in her and that she keeps him from getting into too much trouble with Li Bai. B




Friday Film Review: My Best Girl

Friday Film Review: My Best Girl

My Best Girl (1927)
Genre: Romance/Comedy/Silent Film
Grade: B+
My Best Girl MovieThis movie is so cute I just want to scoop it up and hug it. Mary Pickford’s last silent film, it showcases her charm and talent and proves why she was America’s sweetheart.

The plot is nothing new or exciting. Maggie Johnson (Pickford) is a stock clerk at a five and dime store where she meets new fellow clerk Joe Grant (Charles Rogers) and takes him under her wing. Only he’s actually the owner’s son, there to prove himself before his engagement to a society girl hand picked by his parents. But he and Maggie, of course, fall for each other. What will happen when the rich Merrill family finds out about poor Maggie?

Maggie is so the romance heroine martyr. Her mother spends her days attending funerals – doesn’t matter whose – while her henpecked father waits around at home. Meanwhile wild sister Liz is going out with “sporty” men and getting into all kinds of trouble. Maggie seems to be the only one who works – all day – then she comes home to make dinner and clean up the family messes.

The other girls at the store might joke with Maggie about her interest in Joe but he’s just as interested back as we see in two charming scenes when he rides home with her in the back of a truck before meeting her family in an especially raucous mood. Then later they eat lunch in a packing crate, laughing together and annoying an older supervisor before even he is won over by their obvious love for each other.

But Pickford never lets us feel sorry for Maggie. She loves her family and only stays out one night when Joe talks her into going with him for dinner – to his family’s house when they’re out. She’s horrified at the thought while Joe mimes and winks his plans to the butler behind her back. What follows is a funny scene of Maggie flustering the footman and quietly telling Joe that the service is excellent even if the food is poor.

Then the Merrill’s arrive home and before she flees into the rainy night Maggie finds out just how much Joe has lied to her. As she wanders the streets and dreams of what might have been, Joe frantically searches for her. Only to find her talking the night court Judge out of jailing her sister who’s been arrested. Joe declares his love but Daddy Merrill has to make a final play at getting rid of Maggie before true love prevails.

This is the only scene which I thought Pickford played too broadly but the following reconciliation with Joe was worth it. For the rest of the movie, the actors mainly underplay it and there’s a lack of the overwrought facial expressions and exaggerated acting which I associate with silent films. Here the physical comedy is fantastic and usually had me in stitches. There’s not a lot of dialogue but the actors are so good that it’s not needed to follow what’s going on and being said. I also like that there are a few sound effects and the background music is played by a full orchestra instead of only a piano.

It’s also clear that the film was made before the Hays Code as seen in a funny early scene when an overloaded Maggie is attempting to bring out more stock in the store and accidentally drops a pair of ladies underwear. An unknowing female customer walks onto them then looks down and is horrified at the thought that she’s dropped her drawers in public. During the final reconciliation scene, Maggie initially turns him down saying, “It’s my family, Joe…they need me more than you do.” Her father overhears at which point he finally grows a pair, stands up and yells, “Like hell we do!” before he takes charge and kicks his lazy family in the collective ass. Color me shocked when he said that! But it’s funny as …well, hell.

The movie is only 87 minutes long but it’s one I didn’t want to end. It’s filled with humor, creativeness and wit. Pickford and Rogers, who would later marry, have wonderful screen chemistry and are backed by a great cast. If you’ve never tried a Pickford movie or a silent one, here’s a great place to start.