All the Flowers in Shanghai

Written by Duncan Jepson
Review by Bethany Latham

One of this book’s discussion questions asks if it’s surprising it was written by a man, given its first-person female narrative. Surprising, no, but convincing… perhaps also no. Xiao Feng, a young girl in 1930s Shanghai, loves time in the garden with her grandfather. Unfortunately, he and Feng’s father share the same genetic deficiency: milquetoast syndrome. Thus, they’re ineffectual in preventing Feng’s grasping mother from marrying her daughter into the prestigious, rich, traditional, and terrible Sang family. Feng’s trials begin immediately as she adapts herself to this harsh new environment and, with implausible speed, transforms into someone else entirely.

This book is billed for fans of Memoirs of a Geisha, but caveat emptor — Jepson is not as proficient at donning female skin or portraying credible interpersonal relationships. Most devastating, however, is the inability to evoke a convincing historical atmosphere. 1930s Shanghai is lush with potential, but this story is temporally unmoored; without the cover art, one would spend several chapters in ignorance of the time period. It’s also repetitive — the reader shares Feng’s boredom as she spends months cooped up in the Sang compound, with the same dinners and visits from her husband and comforting from her servant repeating in continual cycle. The ending, with China in the throes of revolution, will come as little surprise.

One refreshing point is the characterization of Feng’s husband, Xiong Fa. He exhibits unexpected three-dimensionality as a character, garnering sympathy in the process. The villains of this tale are stereotypically flat and almost entirely female — Feng’s soulless sister, her avaricious mother, catty and mean mothers-in-law, and even Feng herself. The result is that one fails to identify with Feng — undeniably, she’s dealt a crummy hand, but the manner in which she chooses to play it loses her the reader’s empathy and interest.