Page count: 608 in hardback (I read an e-book version)
Time taken: 5 hours over two days
Violet is the daughter of a popular Shanghai hostess and madam at the start of the 20th century. The books follows her from childhood through to middle age, zooming in in important times and memories. Half-American, half-Chinese, Violet is pulled in several different directions by her heritage and the whims of fate, but is always saved by the strength of her relationships with others.
I read this book very quickly, in about five hours, which is testament to the pacing and plot of the novel. Violet is an interesting character; the book is essentially her life as she would tell it to someone else, and her narrative voice is a strong one. Set in a turbulent time in China's history, the cultural conflict was particularly resonant, and the book dealt very well with "passing" - Violet is white enough to pass for Southern European, and Chinese enough to pass for Manchu, with the right accessories. The discussion of race in the book is nuanced and subtle.
As the book progresses and time passes, Violet stops valuing herself the way others do and starts to value herself for who and what she is. It sometimes feels as though she is not the main character in her own life though; her mother cast a very large shadow over her, and even in the long years they are separated, Violet constantly compares herself to her mother. In fact, the main theme of the novel is "troubled relationships with parents" and this is particularly striking in the Mysterious Lulu Segment, which (whilst I appreciated getting to know the character through her own eyes) I could not find a reason for it being where it was or its relevance to the plot at the time.
I felt that the novel could have used more historical context than was given; I'm pretty well versed in that period of Chinese history (by which I mainly mean I read Wild Swans a bunch of times) so I knew the basics, but there was an awful lot left out. This could well have been a deliberate narrative choice to highlight the narrowness of Violet's world as a woman at that time, or how little life actually changed for people in the 40 years after the abdication of last Emperor and before the rise of Communism, but it was mostly just confusing when particular people were mentioned with no background as to who they were or why they were important.
The best thing about the book, for me, was its exploration of race and racism. The rest of the book felt much more shallow. There are other books - novels or factual - which deal with the subjects of enforced prostitution, life as a courtesan, life as a junior wife, and the gender politics of the place and time, with greater breadth and scope. Obviously, books are allowed to concentrate on one aspect of a situation more than others; but it came across as much more ambitious than it actually managed to a achieve.