I was sent Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip in exchange for a review, and what initially intrigued me about this book is its setting in 1930s China with a focus on a group of female embroiderers. I thought it would make a great follow-up to last week's post on Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition, which is about how China and its people got where they are today.
The Situation: Spring Swallow has escaped a life she never wanted to be a part of, a life that was chosen for her before she was even born. While her mother was still pregnant, Spring Swallow and her future husband, who also had not yet been born, were promised to each other and expected to be married when they got older. And even though her future husband would never make it out of the womb, Spring Swallow finds herself running away from her family after the wedding ceremony that was put together to bind her forever with her dead husband. After a young girl, Purple, takes pity on her and offers her food, clothes, and a roof to stay under, Spring Swallow finds herself living with a team of embroiderers, all studying under Aunt Peony, who used to sew for royalty. Fearing that her family may find her and drag her back into a miserable existence, Spring Swallow is determined to earn Aunt Peony's favor and become the best embroiderer she possibly can.
The Problem: Simply living under Aunt Peony's roof along with Purple, Leilei, and Little Doll, while doing chores and learning embroidery is not as simple and easy as it sounds. Aunt Peony turns out to be a secretive, stern, and demanding woman. And while Purple is extremely helpful, Leilei is full of resentment and envy, while Little Doll carries on as a simple house girl. Plus, Aunt Peony has one rule that none of the girls are eager to follow: they must take a vow a celibacy. Never are they to be with a man or marry one if they are to learn and live with Aunt Peony. Spring Swallow may have run away from her ghost husband, but she is not sure she is willing to give up on one day having a real one and maybe even starting a family. Will she be able to keep the vow she reluctantly made to Aunt Peony? Or will she go back on her word and risk being cast back out onto the street? As Spring Swallow continues her embroidery lessons, she also learns more about the strange and enigmatic woman she is studying under, as well as the other girls in the house. And when life begins to become a little more chaotic, maintaining her vow of celibacy to Aunt Peony soon becomes the least of Spring Swallow's concerns.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 1930s China. A large part of the novel is set in the small city of Soochow, where Aunt Peony's house stands, but there are frequent trips to Beijing and the surrounding area. The first part of the novel does focus heavily on the embroidery and the amount of time, patience, and practice it takes to become as good as someone like Aunt Peony. It is a highly sought after skill even though there is no longer any royalty to sew for. Stores and companies still look for talented seamstresses who produce goods they can sell. As a former embroiderer for royalty, and one of the best, Aunt Peony is teaching Spring Swallow and the others all of her patterns and skills, while still holding back the full story of her past and even a few of her best patterns. Just as the relationship between Spring Swallow and Aunt Peony grows, it also grows between Spring Swallow and the rest of the girls, although she is naturally closer to some more than others. All four of Aunt Peony's tenants are girls of misfortune that she has decided to take mercy on, and although they are all grateful, they still someday hope to leave and begin a life of their own, except for maybe Little Doll. Eventually the story no longer focuses as much on embroidery as it does Spring Swallow's continuing adventure, and the fate of everyone else in the house, including Aunt Peony. There is love, loss, tragedy, betrayals, reunions, and survival, all before Spring Swallow reaches the age of twenty.
My Verdict: This is an overall good story with great characters and a fantastic setting. Having Spring Swallow flee her family and become an embroiderer in 1930s China gives the story the feeling of a fairy tale, while still having it be accessible since the events take place in the 20th century. However, while the beginning of the book has a nice, steady pace, especially when it comes to learning the actual embroidery, the last two thirds of the book seem to have one plot twist and reveal after another. Ultimately, the book seems to leave the sewing behind and becomes something else entirely. Eventually, there is so much going on that it becomes problematic to remember where some characters in Spring Swallow's life left off and which ones know what information. It makes for a great page turner, but the overall clarity and consistency of the story suffers. And as the book continues on towards the end, the believability begins to suffer as well.
Favorite Moment: When Spring Swallow sees Aunt Peony smile and laugh for the first time while talking about awkward English words and phrases.
Favorite Character: It is somewhat difficult to choose as they all go through so much and make many foolish mistakes, mostly when trusting the wrong people, but I will go ahead and choose Little Doll. She may be young, and Aunt Peony frequently calls her either "slow" and/or "stupid," but she is ultimately quite helpful and probably the most trustworthy person in the entire book.
Recommended Reading: Although it is nonfiction, I recommend Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. It is the 2014 winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and for me, an incredibly enlightening account of modern China.