The premise of Miss Chopsticks by Xinran excited me:
From the author of the bestselling "The Good Women of China" comes the uplifting story of three sisters who, like so many migrant workers in today's China, leave their peasant community to seek their fortune in the big city. The Li sisters don't have much education, but one thing has been drummed into them: their mother is a failure because she hasn't managed to produce a son, and they themselves only merit a number as a name.Women, their father tells them, are like chopsticks: utilitarian and easily broken. Men, on the other hand, are the strong rafters that hold up the roof of a house. Yet when circumstances lead the sisters to seek work in distant Nanjing, the shocking new urban environment opens their eyes. While Three contributes to the success of a small fast-food restaurant, Five and Six learn new talents at a health spa and a bookshop/tearoom. And when the money they earn starts arriving back at the village, their father is forced to recognise that daughters are not so dispensable after all. Xinran has become known for her wonderful ability to take readers to the heart of Chinese society. In this new book she tells not only a human story, but the story of a city. As the Li sisters discover Nanjing, so do we: its past, its customs and culture, and its future as a place where people can change their lives. (synopsis courtesy of Waterstones.com)
The book itself disappointed me.
The characters of Three, Five, and Six irritated me.
The situation of the majority of women in Chinese villages angered me.
Certainly Xinran achieves something in eliciting the last response from me; the evocation of the gender bias and hopeless situation of most women is well done, albeit dry. In many ways Miss Chopsticks is a feminist text but it could have been a famous feminist text if only Xinran had created fully-fledged characters. Instead, Three, Five, and Six were, as I have said above, irritating. I sympathised with them but their naivete wore on my patience; I suppose the point of the novel was to demonstrate how behind the times village women could be and how as migrant workers their eyes were opened in startling ways but it backfired with me. This could indeed be a failure in me as a reader, that the culture shock and alien way of thinking (in contrast to mine) was too much to bear but I have read a lot and I have, in the past, read a number of books set in China, many with female protagonists, and none has annoyed me in this way. To be honest I thought that Xinran was condescending of her own characters and failed to depict them as more than stick figures/chopsticks unable to hold up a book.
Image courtesy of Amazon.co.uk