As the summer goes on, I continue to read Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone (you can read my reviews of the first two volumes here and here.) If the first volume was an introduction to the huge cast of characters and the second volume settled us into the domestic routine of the two great Ning-guo and Rong-guo houses, then the third volume ramps up the intrigue.
One of the wonderful things about this book is that you get a real sense of the rhythm of life. Seasons change, holidays come and go, servants draw their pay, different flowers and foods come into season. In volume 3, against that backdrop, tensions in the Jia, Wang, and Xing families begin to mount. Xi-Feng, the tough-minded manager of two households, becomes ill and has to stay in bed. (Health is a huge concern throughout the book: people are always taking various precautions against getting sick, or getting small illnesses and taking medicine or calling for the doctor or compounding potions or powders.) Xi-Feng’s illness is the beginning of all the trouble in the book. First, the servants become laxwithout her immediate supervision. There are fights, thefts, a man sneaking into the Garden where the girls live, and even a nighttime raid to find stolen property.
The events aren’t limited to the servants, however. (The maids are very important characters in the book, but not quite as important as the family.) There is a secret marriage (!), two miscarriages, two suicides (!!), a state funeral, several birthdays, a wedding, several characters who leave this world’s concerns and enter monasteries or follow a monk, a celebration of Mid-Autumn Festival (that’s the one with the mooncakes, if you’re at all familiar with Chinese holidays as celebrated today), more poetry-club meetings, and several appearances of ghosts or doubles (!!!). This volume is crowded with one event after another, all intriguing, all fitting together neatly like the pieces of a puzzle.
If it were just plot elements, however, this book would not be what it is. It’s about relationships. There are the formal relationships that mean offering gifts and kotowing and sitting in order of seniority, but there are also important relationships that involve asking after people who are ill, sending small and thoughtful gifts, or making sure you don’t say too much about family in front of an orphan. You can tease some people and not others; a tough skin is something not everyone is endowed with. Some maids are hot-tempered and others are gentle. Happiness in marriage makes a huge difference to quality of life: a spoiled wife or a stupid husband can make life insufferable. All these small lessons and more are on offer in volume three.
This volume also has a small return of some of the mystery and otherworldliness that the first volume had. There are ghosts and doubles, as I mentioned, and the supernatural plays a greater part. I’m interested to see how this plays out in the rest of the book. So far, The Story of the Stone is gripping, human, funny, insightful — everything you want a novel to be. I am really looking forward to the last two installments.