If anyone wonders how revolutions happen, this book is a good place to start. Through the Wu family, feudal lords in rural China, we see inside a house of power and privilege based solely on inheritance where generations of Wus have presided over lands and servants. A home where most of the women lie idle all day while wet nurses feed and care for their children (while their own go hungry, living hours away from their mothers); servants draw baths, comb hair, and serve tea; and cooks prepare and serve every meal. The men occasionally look over the fields or the markets, but aside from a few overlord sorts of duties, they primarily focus on making sure their wives are obedient and their every pleasure is met. But alas, Buck begins to show the tide of change that comes to China, and we see this change through the Wu family as Madame Wu reaches forty, and her own children grow up and marry. Madame Wu balances delicately on the tightrope that connects past with present. She holds to tradition while inching toward a different view for the future. She begins this journey on her fortieth birthday when she decides she has spent enough time in her husband’s bedroom, serving his needs. She decides to bring a concubine into the house for him so that she can take up residence in her own rooms, space all her own where she can think and read and, eventually, befriend her third son’s “foreign” (aka Western) tutor. I suppose we could call the novel a multi-generation soap opera, but Buck manages to keep it real enough that we’re captured rather than annoyed by the characters. Madame Wu manages her family with grace and wisdom and patience. In many ways, my life has nothing in common with hers–and yet, it does. I want tradition, but I welcome new ideas; I want a strong marriage but also my independence; I want respect and authority within my home, but I want my children to follow their own passions. I want Madame Wu’s qualities, but not her life. At times, though, she does seems a bit superhuman, a bit too perfect. Though she occasionally admits to mistakes, she seems to have no flaws.
Through the Wu family, we see the eventual break-up of the traditional feudal system and the traditional family of several generations under one roof. The youngest son chooses to become a farmer, wanting life in the outdoors rather than in books and inside the family walls. The third son chooses to serve the peasant people by building schools to help educate them. The second son wants further learning and education that he can only receive in a city, so he heads to Shanghai. Only the eldest son clings to the life in which he was raised, a life with his subservient wife, a life where he tells his brother, “I think first of our family, not of strangers and common folk,” a life where he feels it is not necessary to have hospitals for the poor because there are too many people already and “why should so many live?” Buck probably didn’t realize that in this character she created a 2012 Republican politician. And who says a story about 1940’s pre-revolutionary China has little to do with 21st century America? We seem to be fighting similar battles. (fiction)