Shijun, Shuhui, and Manzhen all work in a factory office in Shanghai. Each day, they go to lunch together and Shijun and Manzhen slowly and sweetly come to acknowledge that they are falling in love. Their romance faces a few minor obstacles that both assume can be surmounted with time. Shijun has to look after his family in Nanking. His mother is the first wife to a successful businessman, Hsaiao-tung, who has all but abandoned the family to be with his second wife. Manzhen also has responsibility to her family. Her older sister, Manlu, worked as a taxi dancer to earn money to send Manzhen to school, but now Manlu is getting married, and Manzhen works multiple jobs so that Manlu’s husband won’t have to support a family that isn’t is. When Manzhen’s brother is old enough to work, she says, she’ll be able to marry Shijun.
This 1948 novel by Eileen Chang and translated by Karen Kingsbury traces Shijun and Manzhen’s courtship through the years of waiting. In parallel, we also see Shuhui develop a flirtatious relationship with Tsuizhi, a cousin of Shijun. In keeping with their less serious natures, Shuhui and Tsuizhi keep their relationship light, never quite committing to each other, but avoiding giving their hearts to anyone else as they are clearly most enamored by each other.
For well over half the novel, the romance between Shijun and Manzhen proceeds with minimal complications. They worry about their families’ reactions to their engagement, but there are no major obstacles in that area. Their families might have chosen differently for them, but they don’t seem inclined to stand in their way. It’s a sweet story about decent young people trying to make their way in the world.
And then it takes a shocking, dark, and wholly unexpected turn. Although Chang drops hints along the way at the tragedy to come, I could never have predicted the turn of events that disrupt Shijun and Manzhen’s plans. I would say that it was too unexpected, but I don’t think it is. I was a little frustrated that one character in particular ended up playing the villain as it plays into too many stereotypes about what it means to be a good woman and what is means to be bad. But I was, frankly, too shocked and upset to analyze. And, in the moment, I believed it.
After this tragic turn, everyone’s plans change. Some find a sort of happiness, and others don’t, but, no matter what happens, there’s always a sense of how things could have been better, and that sense taints what comes after. Things are not as they ought to be.
I’m not sure what, if any, statement Eileen Chang was trying to make about the state of marriage in 1940s China. I don’t know enough about the time and place to put it in context. But I know enough about people to have found this book terribly sad. It’s sad in a good way. It made me feel sorrow for people who didn’t deserve the pain they faced. That sweet and shy love that grew so beautifully at the start didn’t even become half the lifelong romance it should have been.
I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Edelweiss.