Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Miss Chopsticks


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

6 comments:

claire said...

Claire, I just finished this. We seem to be on the same page on a few things (the sisters were unlikeable characters), but not on others. I can understand how you would be irritated by their naivete but coming from a third world country, it is so completely true. You would never believe how ignorant most people from the provinces are, and I found that part of the book so authentic, in fact.

I didn't read your review until after reading the book so I wouldn't have any biases. I think for the most part we agree on the writing, but disagree on the other things, mostly based on our backgrounds. It was very interesting reading your thoughts, and it made me look deeper into what I thought about the book, too.

Paperback Reader said...

Claire, it's now interesting for me to hear your thoughts especially as I have to re-examine my perspective from the position of privilege. Personal experience and background bear such an impact on certain reading.
I did struggle with my feelings of annoyance at the time because I thought it probably was authentic but ultimately I felt frustrated, perhaps at the state of 'backwardness' (I'm pretty sure that's how Xinran described it herself; perhaps in merely sketching the characters she is making a point).

JoAnn said...

How interesting reading both your and Claire's reviews together! I didn't realize this is the same author as The Good Women of China (which I bought at the library sale last summer, but still haven't read). Books set in China intrigue me, so I'll be adding this to my wish list...knowing that it will be some time before I actually get to it.

Paperback Reader said...

They make an interesting comparison, don't they, JoAnn?

I've had The Good Women of China for some time on my shelf too but haven't read it either; I'll be interested to see how similar or dissimilar it is to Miss Chopsticks.

mel u said...

An interesting review as always-I sort of thought the limited characters of the girls were a large part of the point of the book-the enviroment in which they were raised produced these limits and nothing allowed them to transcend them-the girls really did not do that bad in the big city-they got jobs, they dealt with officialdom, they survived a failed romance etc-one of them became quite a reader-they were hard workers and did what theyt could to develop themselves-

Paperback Reader said...

Mel, thank you for your thoughts. I appreciate your differing insight as it allows me again to re-examine my prejudices towards the girls, as Claire's comment did. I have begun to think that it was intentional on the behalf of Xinran albeit subtly achieved.