Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: The Lost Daughter of Happiness by Geling Yan

Title: The Lost Daughter of Happiness
Author: Geling Yan
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Hyperion
Published: 2002
Pages: 288

Rating: 2 out of 10

The beautiful Fusang is brought to the city of 1860's San Francisco as a prostitute after being kidnapped from her home in China. There, she is sold from brothel to brothel, continually crossing paths with Chris, a young American boy who falls in love with her.

I did not care for this book, and one of the main reasons was the way that it was written. The style was, above all, detached and bland. There were no quotation marks, something I always dislike (I always wonder why an author would choose to write this way?), and there were no chapters. It made the book feel even more like a droning narrative.
But more importantly, there was an omniscient sort of narrator, who wrote in 2nd person, addressing Fusang as "you," as if perhaps they are reminding Fusang of her own memories. Often, the narrator would tell Fusang to do things, or give her little bits of advice, such as "Look at the customer, now, that's it..." But later on, the narrator reveals herself to be a modern-day woman who was born 128 years after Fusang. So it just didn't make any sense.
And by the way, revealing the narrator's "identity" was utterly pointless and one of the most terribly laughable things I have ever, ever encountered in narrative fiction. This is never mentioned again, anywhere. It was just thrown in at random.
Then, it would sometimes switch to Fusang's story being told quite regularly, in 3rd person (much better). The problem was that these two different styles would often overlap and go over the same things. The narrator might say: "You walk down the street - watch where you're going, now!"
And then the other form of the story will pick that up a few pages later and say "Fusang walked down the street."
It was confusing, pointless, and annoying.

The second thing I did not like about this book was our heroine, Fusang, herself. She appeared to have few feelings about any of the events in her life. When she is married by proxy to a man whom she may never meet (he is in America, sending money back to his family), we cannot exactly tell what she thinks about this change. When she is kidnapped and sold into prostitution, she never betrays any emotion, either. Though it is always stated quite certainly that Chris loves her, it is never clear if Fusang cares for Chris at all.
Perhaps a lot of this could be blamed on Fusang's stupidity - the second reason I disliked her. Bricks have been known to exhibit more intelligence.
When she is kidnapped, Fusang allows herself to be lured away by a strange man onto his boat. When he has her tied up, he assures her that this is because "women crossing the sea aren't allowed to have two legs, it's a violation of ocean law." Fusang accepts this without question, and when she sees a member of her family running to the shore in an attempt to save her, she simply waves goodbye, smiling ignorantly.
She seems not to understand what being a prostitute actually is, even after she has been one for years, later in the story.
She forgets every man she has ever slept with, and when they remind her of their nights together, she simply smiles stupidly at them. Whenever she met Chris again, sometimes I would wonder if she even remembered who he was.
On the other hand, I did find tiny glimpses into the character I think Yan was trying to write. Fusang can at times a simplistically charming girl who remains unaffected by her tragic life, a girl who is too good to be ruined by it. She puts on lipstick not because she is trying to lure customers, but for the simple reason that she likes how it tastes. As many times as her madames beat her, she never makes any attempt to interest potential customers, letting them approach her instead.
But even with these occasional little bits of a personality, she was a heroine I found it very hard to root for.

The only thing that I found interesting about this book was the distinctly Asian feel to it, despite it being set in an American city. It was easy to forget that I was in San Francisco, as it seemed so Chinese. It is fascinating that there are so many Chinatowns all over the world, where the Chinese people have managed to retain their culture and set up a town within a city, just for themselves.

This sounded like such a good premise for a story - a rich young American boy falling in love with a Chinese prostitute. But Chris appeared only a few times, and their romance never seemed convincing. That combined with the bland heroine and awkward writing style ruined the book for me.