Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Review: The Painter From Shanghai

Review: Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River and into the seedy backrooms of “The Hall of Eternal Splendor,” through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China ripped apart by civil war and teetering on the brink of revolution: this novel tells the story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most talented—and provocative—Chinese artists of the twentieth century.

Jennifer Cody Epstein’s epic brings to life the woman behind the lush, Cezannesque nude self-portraits, capturing with lavish detail her life in the brothel and then as a concubine to a Republican official who would ultimately help her find her way as an artist. Moving with the tide of historical events, The Painter from Shanghai celebrates a singularly daring painting style—one that led to fame, notoriety, and, ultimately, a devastating choice: between Pan’s art and the one great love of her life. - ww norton

THE PAINTER FROM SHANGHAI by Jennifer Cody Epstein is one of the best books that I've read this year. I couldn't put the book down even at the expense of a good night's sleep. I woke until 3:30 a.m., but at least I finished it. It was a weird feeling for me, though, because I wanted to know what happened to Yuliang; and at the same time, I didn't want the book to end. I am very concerned that my review won't be worthy of this book.

While the first part of the book does remind me a little of MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA (mainly because it deals with a young Chinese girl working in a brothel), I definitely think this books stands on its own merit. The book tells the story of Pan Yuliang, a young orphan girl who goes from a prostitute to becoming China's foremost female post-Impressionist painter. Little is known about Yuliang; however, Ms. Cody Epstein creates a beautiful account of her life to fill in the gaps.

I am so not-a-writer, but I'm pretty sure that this book was incredibly difficult to write. I think the author did an amazing job of creating this story, while sticking to the actual facts surrounding Yuliang's life. I can't even begin to imagine how much research she must have conducted both on Yuliang's life and art, as well as the history of China over four decades. In addition to the book being extremely interesting, it was also beautifully written. In my opinion, Ms. Cody Epstein is a wonderful writer -- her details throughout the book were exquisite.

I had never heard of Pan Yuliang, but that's not saying much -- I'm really not familiar with art and painters. I found some examples of Yuliang's paintings on the author's website, and I think they are beautiful. It's incredible to me that the paintings are actually what I imagined based on Ms. Cody Epstein's writing. After seeing the pictures, I can definitely understand why Yuliang was such a controversial painter during pre-Revolution China.

This book is also very much a love-story. A wealthy official, Pan Zanhua, bought her freedom from the brothel and made her his second wife. Given the time period, Zanhua was extremely supporting of his wife becoming an artist. Yuliang was very much "ahead of her time" both as a woman and an artist, yet Zanhua continued to love her even at his own detriment. I found it very touching when Yuliang is forced to leave Shanghai and Zanhua to continue her art in France. She had to choose her passion as an artist over her love for a man and love for her country.

I highly recommend reading this book, and even selecting it for your book club. There is an interesting essay by the author and discussion questions here. This book is more than just the story of an artist -- it is really about a woman struggling to find herself despite many constraints. While Yuliang was a very gifted artist, she was also an incredible woman who came from nothing to accomplish her goals. Her story is filled with heartache, yet she perseveres in a time and country which weren't exactly conducive to her plight to become an artist.

Make sure you come back tomorrow because Jennifer Cody Epstein will be guest blogging about being a writer and a mom!

Also reviewed at:
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore
Dog Ear Diary


Amy said...

sounds fantastic!

Anonymous said...

Memoirs of a Geisha was one of my favorites, so I will definitely check this one out! Great review!

Katherine said...

Thanks for linking to me! Also: I saw Jennifer Cody Epstein read from this novel a number of weeks ago in New York City, and just from that I knew I had to read the book.