In The Red Chamber, a vivid, lively reimagining of the lengthy Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, Pauline A. Chen brings to life three unforgettable women trapped by class, time and circumstance.

Set in Beijing at the end of the 18th century—which is when all 2,500 pages of the original were written—the novel is the story of Daiyu, her cousin Baochai and her uncle’s wife, Xifeng.

Daiyu, raised in simple circumstances in the country, is sent to her uncle Jia Zheng’s mansion after her mother dies of consumption. Baochai and her mother and brother already live on the Jia estate, which for all intents and purposes is run by their tight-fisted, capable aunt Xifeng, who handles the money and is in charge of the servants. Picture Downton Abbey in early modern China, and you won’t be too far off the mark. It’s a way of life that has gone on for centuries, but political intrigue, combined with the Jias’ personal conflicts, threatens to bring the entire household to its knees.

The aging emperor is growing feeble, and whether or not the Jias will continue to bask in imperial favor depends upon his choice of successor. Inside the Jia home, the turmoil is just as great. Childless after several years of marriage, Xifeng learns that her husband is going to take another wife. Despising her helplessness within the concubine system, she grows bitter in her need for money and reckless in her search for affection. In the meantime, the close friendship formed by Baochai and Daiyu begins to erode as they both fall for Baoyu, the pampered heir of Jia Zheng.

Chen, who holds degrees from three Ivy League schools, is the author of the well-received children’s novel Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas. Her first novel for adults is skillfully written. Despite their Eastern origins, Chen’s enaging heroines seem like direct descendants of the doomed, repressed women of classic Western literature.

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