REVIEW: Shanghai Love by Layne Wong
“Peilin is betrothed to Kwan Yao, the only son of a wealthy pearl farmer. However months before their wedding, Yao is killed by the Japanese in the Nanjing Massacre. The Kwans insist on proceeding with the wedding and the beautiful Peilin is married to a ghost husband. When an uncle passes away, Peilin is sent to Shanghai to manage the Kwan family herbal shop.
Meanwhile in Berlin, Henri graduates from medical school just as Hitler rises to power and unleashes prejudice and violence against the Jewish population. He flees to Shanghai where he’s befriended by Ping, a young disfigured rickshaw driver. Ping introduces Henri to his sister Peilin. Through her kindness, Henri becomes fascinated with Chinese herbs as well as the exotic culture surrounding him.”
Dear Ms. Wong,
I was excited to get the chance to review this book because it has such an unusual setting – late 1930s Shanghai – and features a multicultural romance. For various reasons, unfortunately it didn’t work for me.
The story begins with separate locations for the two main characters. Peilin’s early life as she learns the science of Chinese herbal medicine from her grandfather is followed by scenes of her being matched with the son of a business associate who supplies her grandfather with pearl powder after which comes the wedding. This was actually fairly interesting and I read it closely.
Meanwhile around the world, Henri is a doctor in Berlin suffering under the increasingly restrictive laws against Jews. His escape is into the world of jazz and there he meets and falls in love with blonde, sultry singer Sophie. Their sexual affair is torrid and Henri makes the mistake of thinking this will overcome Sophie’s family’s objections to his religion. When his family is attacked on Kristallnacht by the gestapo lead by Sophie’s brother, Henri flees into the night with a hastily packed bag and a ticket to Shanghai given to him by his uncle – a place he’s been told will allow Jews without a visa to stay. While a little melodramatic in places, most of this was interesting too.
But while I found I was enjoying learning aspects of Chinese life I didn’t know and the ways Henri was getting around the anti-Jewish laws, it dawned on me that there’s a lot of telling going on here and that this is continued for most of the book. Too much telling – pages and pages and pages of telling – usually make me feel at arms length from a story. Personally, I find it very difficult to get caught up in the characters or feel much emotion for their issues or be interested in their HEA.
Yet this isn’t what started me skimming the book. Not even the fact that Henri and Peilin don’t actually meet until just before the halfway mark of the book did that. Two things happened that did this book in for me. Peilin’s family was murdered by the invading Japanese. Her brother witnessed it. At one point he erupts in pent up anger at what happened and Peilin seems amazed that he’s so angry. My jaw dropped. I know it’s the main responsibility of the son of the family to avenge anything done to the parents but to not understand why her brother is still enraged at what occurred seemed totally bizarre to me.
The second thing that flabbergasted me was Henri’s actions – or maybe I should say lack of actions – once he arrived in China. Here is a man whose father and brother were hauled off by the gestapo, whose uncle was left wounded by the same attack, who fled his homeland with little more than the clothes on his back and who is living among a flood of Jewish refugees who have also fled Nazi oppression and he seems remarkably calm about what might be the fate of his family. He’s sent a few unanswered letters but that’s all that is mentioned. He’s not shown to be scanning newspaper headlines or watching news reels – regardless of how old they might be by the time they get to Shanghai – or even questioning the new arrivals to the refuge center much less making any effort to get his family out of Germany. Nope, after 9 months, he’s just hoping all is well. Henri seems far more interested in Chinese herbal medicine than if his family is all right.
I. Was. Stunned.
To be fair, these issues do come up more in the second half of the book but by this time I was in full skim mode. The story had lost me after the actions of both Henri and Peilin in regard to these major issues didn’t seem realistic. I was not engaged in the telling romance and I had little interest in finding out how they would finally get together. Since I didn’t actually pay full attention to the second part of the book, I guess my grade should be DNF.
This would have likely been a DNF for me as well. Henri’s non-reaction to his family’s arrest would have done me in too. This book sounds like there’s a lot going on in it– maybe too much to balance it well.
@Janine: Given the setting, I was so disappointed that the book didn’t work for me. It seemed to have garnered good reviews elsewhere.
Awww, the non reaction would have ruined the book for me too, too bad because it sounds amazing. I almost wish the author had kept the politics/war time regime out of it for all that it matters to them or perhaps have them come together by their…apparent numbness and maybe coax each other out of it, into dealing with their grief? You know, they’re both emotionally slapped by it to the point of shock and have to heal each other and learn to grieve properly and worry…
Despite your unenthusiastic review, I’m adding this to my TBR list. Shanghai in the 30s is such an interesting time period and I’ve been wanting to read books set there for a long time.
@Jennifer Lohmann: Janine and I were looking through the Amazon listings and it seems like this setting has been used a few other times in recent years. There’s another adult romance/historical fiction and a YA that I saw also set in Shanghai among the Jewish refugees.
@Jayne: Thanks! I’ll look for those.
@Jennifer Lohmann: Here is a link to the YA one.
@Jayne: Just put a hold on it. Awesome!
@Jennifer Lohmann: Here’s another that looks well reviewed and already has a sequel on NetGalley. Jayne alerted me to the sequel.
@Janine @Jayne: Thanks for the recs – I’ve been interested in this setting since reading Helmut Newton’s autobiography (of all things). One of the most interesting parts of his story (at least to me) was about his time in Singapore – his family fled Germany in the late 1930s and he ended up in Singapore, and then was interned to Australia.