I’ve always been a woman who likes homework too much.
“Disgusting,” a friend said when I admitted I intended to translate poetry one weekend. (She insisted on dragging me to a party.)
Even worse, I read others’ translations and criticize them.
Although Pauline A. Chen’s new novel, The Red Chamber, a retelling of the famous 18th-century Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber, is not a translation, I was eager to read it, because I realized it might bring me closer to reading Dream. (It did in that I downloaded it on to my Nook.)
Even if you haven’t read Dream, Chen’s literary historical novel, The Red Chamber, is not like homework: it is the absorbing story of three Chinese women of the 18th century who must angle for power, love, and money from the depths of the Women’s Quarters, where their lives are largely determined by choices of parents and husbands (and an evil grandmother), and the vicissitudes of imperial politics.
After 100 pages I couldn’t put it down. It is well-written, plot- and character-driven, much of it told through dialogue, and it moves fast.
The Red Chamber begins with Lin Daiyu, my favorite character, a strong-minded young woman who, when her mother dies, is sent to the Capital to stay with her maternal grandmother and their extended family at the Jia mansion. Her grandmother, Lady Jia, is a terrifying, dominating, cold-blooded character who thinks nothing of breaking or making love matches among her grandchildren if it can be to her advantage. She dislikes Daiyu from the beginning, and is furious when her favorite grandson, Baoyu, falls in love with her. Shy, well-educated, and clumsy, Daiyu drinks a cup of tea intended as an after-dinner mouthwash at the first dinner, and everybody laughs. But Baoyu, the handsome, indolent young hero, who has nicknamed her “Frowner,” downs his cup of tea in solidarity with her.
And thus begins their complicated relationship.
Wang Xifeng, the wife of Lian, runs the household. She is a brilliant woman, with a head for figures, who spends hours calculating the budget on an abacus and makes sure everyone has what he or she needs or wants: new clothes, food, gifts–Xifeng is on top of it. Lian, on the other hand, is losing money on the estate, but he will not allow Xifeng to help him, even though he doesn’t understand money.
My heart breaks for Xifeng when, after her miscarriage, Lian takes a second wife, encouraged by Granny Jia. If it hadn’t been Ping’er, her personal maid, Xifeng could have borne it better. Xifeng loses confidence, and has to work harder to keep her status.
Xue Baochai, the third main character, has to scheme not just to get by on a low income, but to save her brother, Pan, who, after a fight over a slave girl with a man who also says he bought her, is accused of murder. It is Baochai’s knowledge of the law and the patronage system that keeps Pan out of jail.
Sometimes the women discuss their position. After a former servant commits suicide, the embittered Xifeng says:
Do you think her fate is any worse than ours?… A woman doesn’t have any choices in life. Even from a good family like ours, she has to marry whomever her parents choose for her. If, by a stroke of luck, he is a decent fellow, she might be fortunate. But if he is a bad man, as is far more likely, she will suffer…. How much more so in a poor family like Silver’s, where girls are usually sold off as servants or concubines to the highest bidder?”
Imperial politics smash the household after the Emperor dies without naming an heir. The new emperor confiscates their estate, sentences the men to prison, and the women are left to live in poverty in a tiny apartment.
It’s a bit like a soap opera: rich or poor, the characters must navigate in a complicated world, and I couldn’t wait to get to the next scene.
A very entertaining historical novel, which I’m sure can be read on a whole different level if you know The Dream of the Red Chamber.