In Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, Yiyun Li explores the big themes—individuality, honor, family ties and love—and sets them against a richly detailed tapestry of Chinese life. Though each story takes place in modern-day China, they are formally rigorous and crafted with an elegance that harkens back to stylists like Chekhov and William Trevor. At the same time, the contemporary settings and Li’s modern sensibility bring freshness to old themes.
The nine stories take place in small villages or provincial corners of Beijing. Li’s focus is the ordinary person trapped where the demands of history, community and family collide, and characters suffer from an internalized sense of guilt or shame. Though not overtly political, Li’s stories denote the struggle between individual and community—a particularly potent subject given China’s social and political history.
In “A Man Like Him,” Teacher Fei, a lifelong bachelor, conspires to meet a man who has been publicly—and wrongfully—accused of an indiscretion. Fei has his own past troubles that he hopes will be absolved by this meeting. In “House Fire,” five friends band together to form a detective agency devoted to domestic issues. When a man comes to them for advice regarding an unsavory rumor about his wife and father-in-law, the case threatens the unity of the group and they must decide whether or not to accept it.
But Li is also interested in the way love blooms in the most unlikely places. The title story is the masterpiece in the collection—an expertly crafted work in which a professor introduces her middle-aged son to her favorite student—an action that ignores the natures of both individuals, but also opens up their lives to the possibility of happiness. Similarly, “Number 3, Garden Road” depicts a life-altering evening in the lives of two residents in a Beijing apartment house. Both moved in when the building was new, Meilan as a child, Mr. Chang as a young husband. Many years later, Meilan has returned, twice divorced, and hopes for the newly widowed Mr. Chang to notice her at the neighborhood dances. This story, with the assertive Meilan and deliberately obtuse Chang, comes the closest to humor, but it is a most gentle kind and one that draws inspiration from wise observation.
Li is ruthless in depicting the depths of her characters’ emotional shortcomings; nevertheless her lucidity and eloquence make this collection a literary pleasure.