So, my first week back in college has been a bit hectic, especially since it rained most of Monday and Tuesday (so lots of running in the rain between classes), but in between the freaking out over syllabi and all I’ll have to do this semester, I read this book.
This classic is one I’ve wanted to read for years (I feel like I start off most of my reviews with that sentence). In fact, I own two other Pearl S. Buck books: Pavilion of Women and Imperial Woman. But I’ve heard this is her most famous one, and the first of a trilogy of books examining China during the rapidly changing time of the early 1900’s. Pearl S. Buck is an interesting author, having spend half of her life in China due to her missionary parents. Because of that, she has a deep understanding of China, and yet she can look at it from an outside perspective, not swayed by being brought up in the traditions. This could be a positive or negative, but for me I love how she examines what most Chinese authors of the time take for granted, because to her this world is unique and different.
Synopsis: This family tale follows a humble Chinese farmer Wang Lung, as he marries and builds a family as he works as a farmer to buy his own land and grow in wealth. The story is backdropped by the changing atmosphere of China during the early 1900s.
For not really being fond of any of the characters, I was surprised how much I liked this book. Similar to George Orwell’s 1984, the characters are very much a product of their world and upbringing. They make foolish mistakes, or let others make silly decisions, simply because they have been taught it is right. It is right for a man to take a mistress even if he has a wife. It is right to consider selling a daughter into slavery to have money for a journey home. In this story, the characters seem always to be in this river of grey morality, where good morals can easily be placed aside for pleasure or gain. But mostly, this book is about examining the average Chinese farmer during the time and this family is merely a lens of which we see the rest of the world.
The story starts on the day of Wang Lung’s marriage to a slave girl of a wealthy house in town. And it ends with Wang Lung dying, leaving behind his many children and grandchildren. The story follows him exclusively, though we see his family clearly through his eyes. O-Lan is his wife, who helps him tirelessly build up his farm, and does not even complain when he is wealthy and brings in a mistress to live in his house. Out of any of the characters, she was my favorite, strong and hard-working. Though, if I had been her, I would have knocked Wang Lung over the head a few times. But she, like all the characters, is a product of her time. Other characters include their children, Wang Lung’s father who lives with them, his uncle, people living in the wealthy house in town, and other people they meet.
The descriptions are very practical and while I won’t say the story is slow-moving, Buck does well in selecting only instances which impact the story through the forty years or so it is set. Most of the stories I read are set over a shorter time (whether it be a few weeks or a year), so I find it fascinating how Buck paced a story that takes place over several decades. I never felt bored or like we were forced to watch monotonous scenes. Even seemingly boring moments gave depth to the characters.
Saying that, I still haven’t decided if I’m going to read the next two books of the trilogy. The second book, Sons, seems to follow Wang Lung’s sons during the founding of a new China. The third book, A House Divided, follows Wang Yuan (the grandson of Wang Lung), who returns to China as the country is on the brink of war and his family is in tumult. They might be interesting, because they look at the years following great changes in China. But it might also be very similar to this story.
Either way, I did enjoy this book. I didn’t like the characters, but I could understand and at time sympathize with them. The world is lushly developed and I love how this book examines the average farmer in China, whereas so many books look merely at the lives of the wealthy.
Have you heard of this book or read it? Does it look interesting to you? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,