Friday, March 29, 2013

Review: The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall

Title: The Russian Concubine
Author: Kate Furnivall
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Berkley Trade
Published: 2007
Pages: 517

Rating - 3 out of 10

Set in 1928 Jungchow, China, this book follows Lydia, a Russian young woman who immigrated there with her mother as a child. Lydia spends her days going to a school that her mother cannot afford, pickpocketing on the Chinese streets, and struggling to get by in her poor community. Her life changes drastically when she meets Chang An Lo, a brave young Communist code-breaker. Lydia becomes caught up in Chang's idea of freedom and equality, and despite their differences in culture, feels increasingly drawn to him.

Though this book wasn't all bad, for the most part, I found Kate Furnivall's chick-lit writing hovering around mediocre to bad. 
Amongst the positive sides of her book, she admittedly describes the rich, exotic setting of China realistically and lushly, down to the sounds, smells, and feel of the culture. I loved the way that this book brought China to life. However, there is a negative side. Instead of relying on her writing, she constantly describes China itself in the same words, popular examples being "exotic," "dangerous" or "strange," as if reassuring herself or the reader that this is what her descriptions are suggesting.
There are countless times in the book where any given character (almost every single one, in fact) somehow all have the same thought, something along the lines of "....but this was China, a dangerous and exotic country...." or "China was a world that was exotic and strange, and dangerous underneath..."
It was as if Furnivall was saying to herself "They got that, didn't they? Hmm... Maybe I better write it in outright terms - again." It got old and extremely annoying.

Lydia's relationship with her love interest, Chang An Lo, was a mess. It simply did not work. Calling this a love story is laughable. 
Lydia never even has any romantic feelings for Chang until hundreds and hundreds of pages into the book (well over halfway through). Before that, she simply feels "responsible" for him and they go around stalking each other, one watching the other from the bushes or from afar on the streets. By the way, apparently having a creepy stalker crush is remarkably convenient and will save your life and ward off rapist thugs. Trust me - it saves both Chang and Lydia, though mainly Lydia, in this book about half a dozen times.
No great love story translates into this story. The romance is incredibly superficial and cliche, without any believability whatsoever. When Lydia wants to run away with Chang, I found myself hoping that it wouldn't work out, because I just saw them as a casual fling, and besides that strongly disliked him.

Though Lydia's relationship with Chang falls utterly flat, the other relationships in the book are better. The way that Lydia and her mother are so close, and yet so far apart, seemed very realistic to me, and was probably one of the stronger aspects of the novel. Lydia's distrust and subsequent dislike of her new stepfather, which of course gradually turns to friendship and loyalty, is also well drawn, if also predictable.

Despite all this below average writing, I wasn't prepared for just how horrendous the ending was. I was expecting a conveniently finished ending in which everything turns out well for the characters, probably via a love interest being suspiciously and conveniently stowed away in the nearest bush. 
However, the author used the ending to advertise her next piece of not-worth-your-time book and concluded in a cliffhanger. All of sudden, a character was abruptly done away with (and not in any sort of likely or believable way), a mysterious letter appeared out of nowhere (apparently that had been "hidden" for years and now the other characters just so happen to find it), and a great secret is uncovered! Wow, just in time for book two! I feel that ending any book this way is a cheap, tacky trick, and Furnivall is now forever blocked from my shelves or reading lists for it.