Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ~ Dai Sijie

Isn't it pretty?!
I bought Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress for its cover.  There.  I said it.  I buy books for their covers and that's that.  Unfortunately, covers don't guarantee contents, and I learned that the hard way.
Don't get me wrong.  This little novel isn't bad, per se, which is exactly why it's taken me around two months to read it.  I read through it at a fairly good pace, nodded, and put it aside.  Overall, it did very little for me.

The novel is narrated by the son of two famous doctors who got on the bad side of Mao in Communist China.  The narrator and his friend, in a similar predicament, get sent to a rural mountain community for "reeducation."  There, they meet another young man in a similar position.  This new friend has piles of forbidden classics in hiding and our young hero proceeds to access them in whatever way he can.  Then he and his friend fall in love with a seamstress's daughter and read to her and get her pregnant.  And then they mourn a janitor, or something.  And then something else happens (I've forgotten what, I'm not just being vague).  And then it ends.

I think that the main problem with this novel is that it's not long enough.  It gives the sense of being a long novel, needing a lot of space and time devoted to the development of the setting, the characters, the situation.  But all that is rushed.  I get no sense of Communist China, no sense of what moves our narrator, no sense of much.  Things happen and it ends and I'm not sure whether I care.  I could feel potential, but in a rush of vagueness, it felt flat.

In addition, there were moments in the novel in which it seemed to forget its place and time altogether.  The two I remember were when the characters talked of a siesta and I felt the need to remind them that they are in a culturally secluded China speaking some form of Chinese.  Another was when the narrator talked about the idea of being a teen mom, but rapidly mentioned that being a teen mom wasn't a possibility in such a way that it wouldn't even be a concept to think of.  It seemed to be making a nod to current American issues without considering its true context.

So yeah, this novel was disappointing.  I didn't dislike it, I just lacked reaction altogether.  That's okay.  At least I have a pretty cover to look at.


  1. I had a similar reaction to you. I LOVE books set in China but this one felt so distant I couldn't really connect to it.

    1. I don't think I've ever read anything else set in China, a problem that I should probably remedy. Any recommendations?

  2. This is such a nice cover. There was a copy of it in the peace corps library, and for two years every time I was in the office I would pick this book up, look at it for a while, and put it down. Glad I did, after reading your review. This was made into a movie that I watched with my parents; what I remember about it is mostly that it was slow-moving, that some stuff happened, there was a girl, there were books, and...well, stuff. It wasn't bad but it wasn't great, and it sure wasn't enough to get me to revisit the story in print (as much as the cover did make me want to).

  3. If you'd like to read books set in China why not try any of Pearl. S. Buck's books. I would particularly recommend The Good Earth.