This novel tells the story of Violet, a girl raised in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Violet’s American mother, Lucretia, runs a high-class courtesan house; Violet has never met her father, and is devastated to find out that he is Chinese and she is of mixed race. Violet’s life journey is full of unexpected twists and turns, leading the reader through various strata of Chinese life in the first decades of the last century, including the intricate and intimate world of the courtesan houses (which, yes, are brothels — but so much more, as it’s not simply a matter of paying for sex but of engaging in elaborate courtship rituals which are all part of the game). More than three-quarters of the way through the book, the narrator breaks from Violet’s first-person narration to bring us another narrator — Violet’s mother Lucretia, whose store goes back to the US in the 1890s as we learn what brought her to Shanghai in the first place.
There’s no shortage of eventful plot twists here, and Violet is herself an engaging character. Despite this, the story occasionally dragged for me — it took me quite awhile to get caught up in the story, and I thought there were many places where there was too much “telling” — lots of events synopsized in narrative rather than vivid scenes (though the scenes, when they do occur, are vivid and well drawn). There is a wealth of well-rendered historical and cultural detail here (and some graphic scenes — after all, much of the story does take place among courtesans, so be prepared for that if you read it!) I’m by no means sorry I read it; it was an interesting journey, but I sometimes wished it had been a little more fast-paced.