As part of the MotherTalk book tour, I was asked to review February Flowers, a newly published novel by Fan Wu about modern day university students in China. Having never been to China and knowing very little about the university system in China, I grabbed at the chance to review this book, and I'm so glad I did.
Set in modern day China in the 1990's, February Flowers is the story of two women who become fast friends despite their lack of pretty much anything in common. But the friendship in often challanged by the differences in the two women. Ming, who is 17 and in her first year at university, meets Miao Yan on the dormatory rooftop where Ming goes to practice her violin. Ming is a serious student, preoccupied with her studies in literature, both eastern and western. Yan, in her last year at university, is more worried about getting a job, finding a husband, and being allowed to remain in the upscale Guangzhou provence where the university is located.
Miao Yan seems to be addicted to living in the moment. Although she is a minority from a very small town in the rural north, she latches on to the fashion, food, and sexual lifestyle of the modern city. She has a succession of boy friends, dresses provocatively, and dreams of getting a job in the city of Guangzhou, where life is exciting, money flows like water, and life is good.
Chen Ming, on the other hand, is a lonely and serious student, who doesn't have a boy friend, and who for pleasure, or to deal with emotions she barely understands, plays the violin, alone on the dormitory rooftop. Ming, whose parents were exiled to farm labor during the Cultural Revolution, was brought up on the labor farm and has never been to a city until she discovers the vibrant, exhilarating city around her. With her new friend, Miao Yan, a worldly senior who gives Ming her first alluring dress and teaches her how to pose in heels, these two women's lives become entwined and bitter secrets from their past come to light, secrets that destroy their friendship but make them both stronger women.
Ming's characterization is representative of the post cultural revolution China of the 90s. Fan Wu does a beautiful job of creating a realistic setting where almost unlimited, but relatively new, freedom contrasts with the tight regime it grew out of. Ming is conscious of this freedom which Miao Yan comes to represent, while she simultaneously holds on to the notion of `good girl' that her parents expect. The tension between the two characters, and the concurrent tension within the university itself propels the story. An undercurrent of fear puts Miao Yan's relaxed cynicism in perspective as uniformed workers from the Security Department patrol the campus looking for overly made-up women or smokers. Governmental control forms a backdrop to the story as Miao Yan struggles with her desire to work in Shenzhen, border controls and dossiers. But everything, including the hint of feminism, which underpins Ming's awakening is handled subtly.
Fan Wu tells this story in a way that isn't clichéd or overly dramatic. The emotions expressed in all of the characters - not just Ming and Yan, but also their dorm-mates, fellow students, and the various boys and men that enter their lives - ring true. Fan Wu clearly knows of which she speaks. To fully understand these emotions and attitudes, it helps if one has been to China or personally knows any young Chinese, but any reader, even without having experienced today's China and young Chinese, will recognize and appreciate the characters' dilemmas, thoughts, and emotions.
This story is told in a voice that is simply beautiful and fragile. Wu hides nothing from us, and her honesty and sense of wonder come through beautifully. Her tone is down-to-earth but without any hint of sarcasm, cynicism or irony. And so the reader can relax and be completely absorbed by the book.
I highly recommend this book.
Interview with Fan Wu: http://www.compulsivereader.com/html/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=1371
Article about Fan Wu: