The Girl Who Wrote in Silk

girl-who-wrote-in-silkI can’t believe how long it’s been since I was able to post — an entire month, gah. I’ve been reading, but I just have not had time to write in February! February is always dreadful. I’m hoping to catch up a bit in the next couple of days — good thing this is a short month, so that if nothing else we all don’t murder each other in our sleep.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, by Kelli Estes, is something I read for a local women’s book group I was asked to lead. It’s a dual timeline story with a sort of romance-novel vibe, and I was fairly skeptical at first, but it didn’t turn out to be quite as awful as I thought it might be. The first story takes place in the mid-19th century, and features a Chinese girl, Mei Lien, who lives in Seattle. She and her family are driven out of their home, pursuant to the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act of 1882, and (thanks to events I won’t go into) Mei Lien is the only one of her family to survive. The other story is that of Inara, a modern woman who also lives in Seattle. Inara wants to stop being a businesswoman and take up running a boutique hotel on her family’s property on Orcas Island, which (naturally) is where Mei Lien fetched up after she left Seattle. Inara is doing some initial restoration of her family’s house, and finds an intricately embroidered silk sleeve under a stair. She begins some exploration of how the sleeve might have gotten there and whom it might have belonged to, and the two stories begin to converge.

Mei Lien’s story is by far the more interesting and engaging. The author clearly took the time to research Chinese-American culture and to try to understand how someone might feel about being excluded, discriminated against, and brutally separated from her family during the latter part of the 19th century. Mei Lien has her own personality, her own sense of mourning and spirituality, her own anger and sorrow, her own sense of gender norms, and her own art, which she expresses through needlework. I am not, personally, much of a romance reader (with the exception of Georgette Heyer) and so I found the romance conventions excruciatingly embarrassing, but I could tell, through the red fog of make-it-go-away, that they were normal for romances.

Inara’s story was something else again. Unfortunately, this modern-day story was far more clichéd, banal, and filled with way overdetermined coincidences. Just one (possibly the worst one — spoiler ahead): when Inara finds the sleeve under the stair, she consults Daniel, a professor of Chinese art at the University of Seattle, who happens to be of Chinese heritage himself. This professor, with whom she falls instantly in love, is, of course, one of Mei Lien’s descendants. OF COURSE. Because there’s only one Chinese person in Seattle. Jeez. Jeeeeeeeez.

I will say that one of the women at the book club read this section differently than I did. She saw the modern section as a fulfillment of the historical section: the professor and his wealthy family (Daniel’s mother is a very successful restaurateur) are examples of how the Chinese succeeded in the US despite terrible odds against them. I can see this reading, though I don’t think it’s well written at all.

I was also taken aback at the end of the book to find out that the author had changed historical events in Seattle to suit her own purposes. Apparently, many towns in the Northwest did drive the Chinese out, including US citizens, and sometimes killed them, but Seattle did not: in Seattle, the sheriff stopped that from happening and used his men to personally guard the ethnic Chinese until the riots had stopped some six months later. I was shocked that Estes portrayed Seattle as one of the places that drove the Chinese out and killed them, when actually that didn’t happen there. What do you think about that?

In any case, I had very mixed feelings about the book. The setting was lovely, and I liked Mei Lien as a character, but I wouldn’t really recommend it. Have you read this book? Do you think historical books should stick to facts?

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