The Painter of Shanghai - a book review

The Painter of Shanghai
Jennifer Cody Epstein
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-141-02933-7

Let me begin this book review by saying a few things about my reading habits. First, fictional biographies are not my cup of tea. My experience with them has been spotty with decent reads mixed in with stilted writing and unbelievable scenarios. Second, China (Asia in general), is not an attractive culture to me. I don't care for the art as I consider it busy and garish. I don't understand the 'hidden' undercurrents of that society.

So, knowing the above, I delved into a book that is both fictional biography and set in China.

Wow. What a wonderful surprise this book is! It is a tale of a Chinese woman's journey from the life of a prostitute to being a controversial artist. Beginning in 1957 and set in France we're given a short introduction to Pan Yuliang of today. Soon, though, we're transported to 1913 when she is 14 and her life changes direction. Here is where we learn of her family, the traditions of Chinese life and how they rule the educated and the rural ignorant. Sold into prostitution by a trusted uncle, she struggles to learn and survive. Two years later she is rescued from the life by a kind gentleman who works in local government, who takes her as his concubine. He is a believer in empowering women to be individuals and independent. Drawing and doodling, her talent is noticed by a local artist. She enters art school and becomes the artist she was meant to be.

There. That's a quick summary of the story. Now for the best part. The reading. Jennifer Cody Epstein writes with beautiful prose, introducing various bits and pieces of Chinese life and culture as effortlessly as if she were sharing her own story. Her knowledge and research comes through beautifully, but her skill with storytelling is what held my attention. I was shown how a woman lives in China when it is a Republic, to China when it is Communist.

I was captivated, entranced and curious as to what would happen next. Not once did I believe Pan Yuliang to be whining or play the martyr. Her story is horrible. It is incomprehensible to me that China would consider women in such roles and their traditions are still unattractive to me. And yet each scene and experience is believable.

The tale of Pan Yuliang was told with dignity and respect, and adding in the skill of the writer I believe this is why I enjoyed reading it.

I recommend this to anyone interested in learning about a strong woman's life. And how she got the strength to go forward by believing in others, in herself and having the pragmatism necessary to survive difficult times.

I look forward to reading more of Jennifer Cody Epstein's work. See for yourself at www.jennifercodyepstein.com.

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