Pearl of China
by Anchee Min
Published by Bloomsbury USA
2 Out of 5 Stars
Pearl of China is a fictionalized account of the life of Pearl Buck as told by her best friend, Willow Yee. From Buck's childhood as a missionary's daughter in China to her life in America during Mao's Great Leap Forward, we see Buck's life through Willow's eyes and, as a result, what her work meant to the Chinese people. Having been raised in China, Buck is presented as more Chinese than American and as the only Westerner who could communicate the Chinese culture without bias, stereotypes, or misunderstanding.
This is a slim book and a fairly quick read, although it seemed longer because I found so much of the novel to be tedious. I appreciate what Min was trying to achieve, but I think perhaps a biography may have better served her purposes than a fictionalized account ever could. Its brevity is problematic in that events move quickly and the transitions are often choppy and unclear. The passage of time is difficult to track as entire decades may pass between one paragraph and the next. This also leads to seeming inconsistencies within the development of characters. In the beginning, Willow and Pearl despise one another and then, inexplicably, they're best friends. Both Willow and her father have problems with the faith preached by Absalom, Pearl's father, but both inexplicably become true believers (this is especially unclear in Willow's case). We never get to fully know Willow or Pearl, which makes it difficult to care about either.
Much of the novel, especially toward the second half, reads more like a textbook being narrated by Willow. There's a great deal of "this happened and then that happened," and this fact-dropping often stands in as evidence for the supposedly deep friendship between Willow and Pearl. As a result, I never really understood how these women became devoted lifelong friends. The second half is also set in Mao's China and for the last 100 pages mentions of Pearl are reduced to "Pearl was once again denied entry to China" statements. We have no idea what life was like for Pearl during this time period, although we do see Willow's suffering as a result of her inability to give up her faith in God (which would also be a rejection of Pearl). Even in what should be the most moving part of the novel, Willow's flat and toneless narration of events makes it difficult to connect with the characters.
While I do respect Min's attempt to show what Pearl Buck means to Chinese culture through Chinese eyes, one's time would be better spent reading Buck's body of work.