Monday, August 11, 2008

Review: Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

Summary: From the author of the 2007 Orange Prize finalist A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers comes a wholly original and thoroughly captivating coming-of-age story that follows a bright, impassioned young woman as she rushes headlong into the maelstrom of a rapidly changing Beijing to chase her dreams.

Twenty-one year old Fenfang Wang has traveled one thousand eight hundred miles to seek her fortune in contemporary urban Beijing, and has no desire to return to the drudgery of the sweet potato fields back home. However, Fenfang is ill-prepared for what greets her: a Communist regime that has outworn its welcome, a city under rampant destruction and slap-dash development, and a sexist attitude seemingly more in keeping with her peasant upbringing than the country’s progressive capital. Yet Fenfang is determined to live a modern life. With courage and purpose, she forges ahead, and soon lands a job as a film extra. While playing roles like woman-walking-over-the bridge and waitress-wiping-a-table help her eke out a meager living, Fenfang comes under the spell of two unsuitable young men, keeps her cupboard stocked with UFO noodles, and after mastering the fever and tumult of the city, ultimately finds her true independence in the one place she never expected.

At once wry and moving, Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth gives us a clear-eyed glimpse into the precarious and fragile state of China’s new identity and asserts Xiaolu Guo as her generation’s voice of modern China. -- Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

I was reading my Entertainment Weekly magazines book section last week, and I saw that TWENTY FRAGMENTS OF A RAVENOUS YOUTH by Xiaolu Guo received an A- rating. I had the book in my TBR pile for about a week (which isn't very long for me at all), but I moved it right to the top after reading their review. It is a pretty short book (around 170 pages) and I knew that I could read it in an evening -- that's my conscience talking since I feel bad for reading it ahead of some other books that I've had for quite awhile. Plus I have recently read a few novels that take place in China, and I have found that I am very interested in this culture.

I thought the premise of the book was very good -- each chapter is the story or a "fragment" of her youth. The book begins with Fenfang telling the reader that "My youth began when I was twenty-one. At least, that's when I decided it began. That was when I started to think that all those shiny things in life -- some of them might possibly be fore me." For the next 20 chapters, we get a glimpse into some key events from her young life.

First and foremost, this book is a coming-of-age story. Fenfang decides to leave her home in a small country village and travel 1800 miles to Beijing, where she hopes to find her fame and fortune. She arrives in a city that is in a state of major change; and she discovers that while she wants to be a modern woman, it isn't as easy as she had hoped. She works at many jobs and lives in many apartments as she tries to find her way. In addition, she enters relationships with two unsuitable men and never really develops any good female friendships.

This book deals with some serious issues. One scene that particularly touched me was when she went back home to her village to visit her parents. So much had stayed the same, but she also realized how much her parents had aged. While there were so depressing parts of this book, there was also a great deal of humor in its pages. Fenfang is an astute observer with many funny thoughts on the people she meets. She also is constantly appealing to the "Heavenly Bastard in the Sky" for advice and coping skills.

One thing I enjoyed were the photographs that were placed throughout this novel -- Ms. Guo actually took them herself. I thought these pictures definitely added to the feel of the story and gave me some idea about what Beijing looks like. Of course in the next few weeks, I'll probably be seeing lots of Beijing while watching the Olympics.

Ms. Xiaolu Guo is a very talented woman. She was a 2007 Orange Prize finalist for A CONCISE CHINESE-ENGLISH DICTIONARY FOR LOVERS. In addition, she was the director of the award-winning documentary "We Went to Wonderland." She has also written the feature film, "How Is Your Fish Today?," which was screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 International Women’s Film Festival.

I did enjoy this book a great deal, but I thought the story behind this book is also very interesting. TWENTY FRAGMENTS OF A RAVENOUS YOUTH was originally published in China in 2000. However after Guo had the original translated, she decided that she no longer agreed with the main character of Fenfang. As a result, she rewrote in English much of this novel.

This book would make a very interesting selection for some book clubs, especially if some of the members are interested in China. Even though it is a rather short book, there is still a great deal to talk about. If you are interested in reading the discussion questions, click here.


Cheryl said...

I will have to check this one out

Jessica said...

This book caught my eye because the girl on the cover looks a lot like one of my former students. Sounds like a good and quick read.

And did I understand this right, that Guo changed a lot of the book in its translation to English?