Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Three Sisters

Hi Flower!

Village life anywhere has always been tough and China in 1971 is no different. The opportunities to get ahead are few and the collective judgment of the populace is swift and brutal. In The Three Sisters, the Wangs are The Family in their small Chinese village. Father Wang Lianfang is a Party Secretary and as a result the family's prominence is assured. At the novel's start the family has a new reason to celebrate. After seven daughters a son has finally been born. The satisfaction the Wangs have in this most fortunate occasion and their social status are both destroyed when Father is caught philandering. Within moments of the scandal breaking they go from being the local Kennedys to the Kettles. It is devastating in terms of their day to day lives and their future prospects.

Author Bi Feiyu concentrates his talents on three of the seven sisters: Yumi, Yuxiu and Yuyang. The novel is physically divided into their overlapping stories but as a reader it's also divided into ancient China, life in the village where their stories start and Cultural Revolution China, life in the city where their stories end. The events of the sisters survival, their meager victories and epic defeats are too real to be read as soap opera fodder. Their struggles to get ahead, to escape the devalued position the scandal and China has placed them in have an inspirational quality about them. So while the setting and culture have so much that seem exotic, the search for respect is universal.

The Three Sisters is not a sentimental novel about poetic loses and against the odds achievements. It has more in common with the honest brilliance of the memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China than the novels of  Lisa See.

Feiyu is completely successful in making Yumi, Yuxiu and Yuyang interesting and sympathetic. At times he piles on so much detail (As fascinating as they all are!) of the women's lives and China that it's work to keep the threads of the novel's plotline together. His reach for a sort of epic arch to the sisters experiences verses China's past and present is undermined by occasionally failing to grab a hold of their emotional lives. Flaws aside, I enjoyed reading Sisters. It was an enriching and involving novel.

P.S. One of the things that surprised me the most about Sisters ---and maybe this is a cultural thing---is that that it didn't follow the usual pattern of fiction about three women. The Sally, Irene and Mary scenario. That is where three woman all face difficult trials (often of a moral nature) and as a result there is a Good Girl who overcomes with purity intact and gets rewarded, a No Better Than She Should Have Been Girl who survives scathed having fallen prey temptation and is punished but there is a light at the end of the tunnel for her and the Bad Girl. The Bad Girl is the one who willingly chooses the lures offered her for gain and as a result receives the ultimate punishment.

Sally, Irene and Mary is considered one of the basic screenplay plots. It was originally a movie made in 1925 starring Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford and Sally O'Neil as chorus girls looking for love and fame. I don't know that even in 1925 this was a new idea but it has certainly been used time and time again since then.

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