Title: All the Flowers in Shanghai
Author: Duncan Jepson
Release Date: December 20, 2011
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Genre: Historical Fiction, Cultural Fiction
Rating: 3 out of 5
Feng is a carefree child, living in Shanghai in the 1930s. Because she is the younger daughter, she is expected to remain unmarried and take care of her parents, while her older sister will have a glamorous marriage. But when Feng’s sister dies unexpectedly, she is pushed into her sister’s place as the bride of a businessman. Resentful and bitter of the sacrifices she has been forced to make to please others, Feng plots her revenge against those around her.
All the Flowers in Shanghai brings into sharp relief how badly women were treated in China in the early 1900s. Having a daughter was of little value; sons were greatly preferred in this culture. Feng is treated as property, expected to give up all of her hopes and dreams to fulfill her parents’ wishes. Once she is married, she is merely a vessel to deliver sons for her husband’s family. The only person who listens to Feng, who takes her wishes into account, is her maid. It’s no wonder she turns into a bitter person who finds no happiness or fulfillment in life.
However, this constant resentment Feng feels towards everything and everyone is also what makes All the Flowers in Shanghai an almost painful read. It is completely understandable why Feng has so much hate in her, but it makes her a difficult character to like. Readers will pity her, but they will find it hard to sympathize with her as her bitterness takes over completely and she becomes cruel and vindictive. She just isn’t likeable, which makes the novel as a whole an arduous read.
The novel takes place at a very interesting time in Chinese history, but little of that makes it into the book. It’s a very insular novel, about Feng and her personal issues, rather than about the world around her. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, the outside world all of a sudden becomes very important towards the end of the novel, and it is jarring. Jepson assumes the reader has some familiarity with China during this period; if you don’t, you may be a bit lost while reading.
While All the Flowers in Shanghai was an interesting novel, it didn’t quite work. Feng was a bit too difficult, and the secondary characters were flat. The history is fascinating, but given much more thorough treatment by novels such as Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy by Lisa See. If you’re fascinated by the historical treatment of women by other cultures, you should consider this book, but otherwise, it was too hard of a read.