Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

"February Flowers" by Fan Wu

February Flowers by Fan Wu (2006, 239 pages) is set in 21st Century China.    It centers on two women and their relationship to each other.   The central character and narrator, Ming, tells the story as a long flash back to her university days and her relationship with Yan.   Seventeen year old Ming is bookish, driven to succeed, devoted to her parents and naive in the ways of the world.    She has had no romantic experience whatsoever and accepts the official Chinese line that there are no homosexuals in China.    She lives with three other young women in a dormitory.   She is an avid reader of western classics as well as Camus.   She also reads and studies classical Chinese literature.    Her father was a well known scholar before he and her mother were sent for several years to work among agricultural peasants as part of the massive re-education program of Mao.    The father is back to his teaching and his reading now but his potential to be a great scholar was destroyed and you can see her parents live a cautious life.   Yan on the other hand is 24, quite a bit older than the other college students, worldly, attractive and dressed in a fashion that she seemingly cannot afford.   She has a cynical woman of the world wisdom that can dazzle her much young women friends.   (Seven years is a big age gap when you are 17).  

We do not at first know that much about Yan.   Ming wonders how she can afford the fancy clothes.   Ming says she has a part time job but will not say doing what.   Yan reveals that she was molested at 13 and has had a boyfriend.  (We later find out she has had many boyfriends).   Yan slowly begins to probe Ming concerning any sexual feelings she may have.   She asks Ming if she would like to have a boyfriend.   The atmosphere of the university is very puritanical and the university police have a right to raid lover's lane type places.   If  a student is caught there, the university officials may notify her parents.   Slowly Ming begins to develop feelings she does not understand for Yan.   Yan has contrived to undress in front of Ming several times.   The story line unfolds as a coming of age and wondering if I am a lesbian plot.   Keep in mind Ming has been raised to think only decadent foreigners are homosexuals.  

February Flowers is an interesting look at university life in modern China.  It is a credible coming of age story and the internal tension in Ming is well done.   The book is a bit slowly paced.   It is a good account of friendships between women.   We also see how terribly important family is to all the women.   We are made to feel  the attraction of Ming for Yan is real.   In the part of Yan, we sense she uses her ability to sexually attract men and women as a kind of a game, a power matter.    We see the results of the her involvement with numerous men.    In an erotically charged and quite not what I expected scene we see what is sort of Ming's first sexual encounter.    As the flash back ends we see what Ming is making of her life.   We sense she still does not fully understand her sexuality and may be too deeply programmed to accept her desires.  

To me February Flowers fits in well within the themes of the Women Unbound Reading Challenge.   We get a look at the lives of young women-17 to 24-enrolled in a Chinese University.   We see how the expectations for women in terms of family obligations shapes their world more than it does of the male students.  We see how even in 21th century China, a woman is expected to remain relatively naive sexually before marriage whereas there are no such strictures on the male students.   We see how women who cross the line are viewed.   We see the effects of the one child policy on families.  

The official biography of Fan Wu (from her personal web page) reads like a case study of a woman overcoming huge obstacles.   

"Fan Wu was born on a state-run labor farm in mainland China, where her parents were exiled during the Cultural Revolution. Despite poverty and isolation, the farm provided her with boundless freedom and joy. In 1985, her parents left the farm, bringing her four older brothers and her with them, and settled in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province.
In the mid-90s, after graduating with a bachelor's degree in Chinese Language and Literature from Sun Yat-Sen University, she went to work in Shenzhen, the first Special Economy Zone in China, transformed from a fishing village to a bustling metropolis in ten years. During her three years there, she held varied jobs and traveled extensively, witnessing the unprecedented economic boom, as well as the exploitation of workers from poor provinces and the countryside. In 1997, a scholarship from Stanford University brought her to America, and after earning an MA in Mass Media Studies, she joined Yahoo!, a Silicon Valley-based Internet company, where she worked in market research and editorial for more than seven years before devoting herself to writing."
February Flowers is well written (the book did drag a bit).  It is easy to read and follow.  I am glad I read it for the look it gave me at unversity life of young women in modern China and I enjoyed wondering if Ming would ever give in to her feelings for Yan.   I endorse this book (with the reservation it is not "high art" or close to it) for a semi-light read.   It does have one scene of a near x rated nature.   Most Goodreads reviewers gave it three stars and I would also.  

Mel u


Book Bird Dog said...

How interesting that writers from China are exploring new topics on sexuality. Since the author writes from the U.S., it would be interesting to know how well her books are received in China itself.

Suko said...

February Flowers seems to fit the criteria for several reading challenges, as well as The Reading Life. Well done review, Mel!

Mel u said...

Book Bird Dog-February Flowers has been translated into six languages according to the book inside page-I wonder if it has been translated into Chinese

Suko-thanks as always

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've owned this book for over a year, and also have her latest book. Sadly, both still unread. I did enjoy your review, perhaps it will motivate me now..LOL

Mark David said...

Wow you've read 4 books already! Congratulations! I originally planned to read 10 but now I think I'll only manage to finish 5.

Here in the Philippines, as it is in the States I imagine, people tend to be more concerned about age gaps and age gaps of more than five years can easily be controversial. But I imagine in other Asian countries, even an age difference of 10 years doesn't really matter. Personally, I think age differences don't matter so long as the couple are on almost the same level of maturity. Like a man of 30 can easily marry a woman of 20, but a man of 25 might not want to marry a 15-year-old girl just yet. And of course there are other factors that can make a couple compatible with each other. My dad is eleven years older than my mom, but they were already both matured individuals then (which, in terms of age, is why many people mistake my parents for my grandparents, hehe)

That's a beautiful cover by the way :)

Mel u said...

Mark David-your comments are very perceptive as always-it seems to me the younger people are the larger an age gap looms

Color Online said...

Enjoyed your review. We have this on our shelf but I haven't read it yet.