Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Painter From Shanghai

Epstein, Jennifer Cody. 2008. The Painter From Shanghai. Norton. 416 pages.

Not my typical book by any means. I rarely read contemporary adult literature*. The Painter From Shanghai is a novelization of the life of Pan Yuliang, a Chinese artist from the twentieth century. Her life was interesting--no question--she was sold into prostitution as a young teen by her uncle no less; she was rescued by a man several years later. She became his second wife, or concubine. With his encouragement, she followed her interests and began studying art--drawing and painting. The novel follows her through several decades. It's a novel not only about art and politics, but about society, culture, gender, and sexuality as well. When Pan Yuliang was just getting started, she faced lots of obstacles. The biggest obstacle of all was her gender. No one wanted a woman artist to be successful. It was difficult for her to be accepted into art schools, for example. To have the same opportunities as male artists. Everything became more scandalous because she was a woman. Of course, in many ways the times in which she lived were just turbulent and out of sorts anyway: politics in the twenties and thirties leading up to the war.

My thoughts on the novel: As I said, this isn't my typical read. It's a bit out of my comfort zone. Art has never been a big interest for me. (Excepting for watching Mona Lisa Smiles with Julia Roberts, I've never thought much about art at all.) History, I love, but Chinese history is an area that I've not read much about. So I had no context to place this novel within. That being said, I found the first half to be especially interesting. These chapters focus on her early life. Her years as a prostitute and the first few years of her relationship with Pan Zanhua. There's a vulnerability and hope here which I find compelling. It's not that the second half fails as a narrative. I'm not saying that at all. But the more confident Pan Yuliang becomes in her work. The more it absorbs her. The more it takes her time and attention. The more isolated she became, the more distance I felt. Her story seemed less immediate, less vital. The more details we learn about her work, her schooling, her exhibits, her time traveling abroad in Europe, the politics of the time, the obstacles she faces from her peers and society at large...well, I found them less interesting than what came before. All of the novel focuses on her struggles. So it's not that life became easy for her. It didn't. So in some ways, it should all be equally compelling. (But maybe I was interested more in the teen years because my interest is in young adult literature?)

Would I recommend it? I think for adult readers who read contemporary literature, this one would be a good read. It's a complex novel. It's rich in details. The context is there for those who want to immerse themselves in the times--art, history, politics, culture, etc. It's not a boring read by any means. The first half of the novel, it was nearly impossible to put it down.

*I'm not sure if this is the right genre or not. I don't mean to confuse. It is a historical fiction novel. But it's by a contempory author. That's what I meant by contemporary literature.

© Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Suko said...

Becky, I have been reading genres out of my comfort zone lately, too. Thanks for your review. I hadn't heard of this book until now.

Weronika Janczuk said...

Looks very interesting--the cover caught my interest. I think I'll definitely follow through with this one later into the summer.

Anonymous said...

INteresting review. I think it's good to break out of our comfort zones from time to time! Thanks for all the time and energy that went into reading and reviewing Painter!

Zibilee said...

I heard that this book was pretty heavy on the history, which in some ways interests me. I love historical fiction, so I have been wanting to read this book, but I am not sure that the time period or setting is a good one for me. That being said, your review was very thoughtful, and I really appreciated your insight into this book.

Jess said...

I won this book for my book club and we are looking forward to getting the books and discussing this at a future meeting. Thanks for the great review, I will mention it to the club members.

Mark David said...

I find this particularly interesting. Thanks for the review Becky! :)

I'm quite fascinated with the Japanese and Chinese culture. I think there a certain distinct kind of drama in their stories that you normally won't find in English literature. I guess I'll enjoy this.