Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip

Set against the vibrant and intrigue-laden backdrop of 1930s China, Mingmei Yip's enthralling novel explores one woman's defiant pursuit of independence.Spring Swallow was promised in marriage while still in her mother's belly. When the groom dies before a wedding can take place, seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow is ordered to become a ghost bride to appease his spirit. Under her in-laws' protection, she will be little more than a servant, unable to know real love or bear children. Refusing to accept her fate as a "bad-luck woman," Spring Swallow flees on her wedding day.

In the city of Soochow, Spring Swallow joins a community of renowned embroiderers. The women work for Aunty Peony, whose exquisite stitching once earned her the Emperor's love. But when Aunty Peony agrees to replicate a famous painting--a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete--betrayal and jealousy emerges within the group. Spring Swallow becomes entangled in each woman's story of heartbreak, even while she embarks on a dangerous affair with a young revolutionary. On a journey that leads from the remote hillsides around Soochow to cosmopolitan Peking, Spring Swallow draws on the secret techniques learned from Aunty Peony and her own indomitable strength, determined to forge a life that is truly her own.

Opening Paragraph: It was my wededing day. I was horrified. Because my soon-to-be-lawful-and-awful husband was not even a man. He was a ghost. Well, a man, but a dead one! A sinister being, his cold hands reaching toward me from the yin world... 

Review by Mirella Patzer 

The opening paragraph of Secret of a Thousand Beauties is powerful and gripping. It definitely lures you further into the story. Despite the fact that the groom is dead, Spring Swallow must fulfill a marriage promise made when the two were mere children. Stepping in to represent her dead groom is a rooster. After the wedding she is obligated to serve her groom's family for the rest of her life. Marrying the dead is an ancient tradition and based upon honor. But Spring Swallow is strong and determined to ensure her life is a happy one, so this is a story of how she bolts, and breaks away from tradition to make her own way in life. 

Told in first person narrative through the voice of Spring Swallow, the author does a wonderful job of interjecting history and culture into the bittersweet, fascinating storyline. She finds work as an embroideress with a woman named Peony, who takes in stray girls to learn the craft. Although she has food and shelter, her life is one of toil and Spring Swallow soon finds herself as trapped as her ghostly marriage. Briefly, she is able to escape to a mountain top where she writes her thoughts on rocks. Soon someone is responding to her writing and she falls in love with Shen Feng, a rebel. 

This is a tale of one woman's struggle for freedom in a world where tradition and ancient beliefs still hold a great deal of power. I enjoyed the easy prose and poignancy of the tale. The characters were three dimensional and not predictable in the least. Although there is a tone of sadness in this novel's pages, it is what makes it most credible, mirroring real life. An excellent book! Definitely one to add to your collection. 

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