22 June 2009

Review The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Pan Yuliang: The very name betrays the promise she made to never lie to Zanhua. She is not really Yuliang, and she is not really Pan Zanhua's wife. And every time she places the characters for Pan-Yu-Liang on a painting, she remembers what it cost her to become the Famous Western-Style Woman Painter of Shanghai.

Xiuqing was orphaned as a young child and sent to live with her opium-addicted uncle, Wu Ding. Little Xiu is happy helping with household chores and learning poetry. When she is fourteen, Wu Ding's debts become so great he starts to sell off his possessions, including his niece. It is then that Xiuqing begins to live in lies.

Known as Yuliang, the child serves the top girl at the Hall of Eternal Splendor and begins her training. She learns to deceive men and to pretend to herself that she is not a common whore. She buries Xiuqing deep inside and endures. When she is sent as a gift to Pan Zanhua, the new inspections officer, she has no reason to suspect that her destiny has changed.

Yuliang's transformation from pleasure girl to trained oil painter was possible only through her own stubbornness and talent as well as the love and support of Zanhua. It is often difficult to remember that Epstein's novel is based on the life of a real person. It is hardly believable that an orphan, a prostitute, a concubine could find the will and a way to escape absolutely everything. Yuliang's story is full of contrasts: who she really is versus who she is forced to be, bound feet and second wife played out against the communist revolution, woman as property becoming woman of independent means.

Epstein immerses us into Yuliang's universe, in which traditional culture tumbles into the modern world and where we can find inspiration and role models in the most unlikely places.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in art, China, historical fiction, and women's issues.

Jennifer Cody Epstein has a website where you can learn more about real Pan Yuliang.

Here is just one of many sites that show images of Pan Yuliang's works.

Published by WW Norton
ISBN-13: 9780393065282
Challenges: A-Z Author, New Author, 999, 100+, Art History,
YTD: 48
Rating: B+


Unknown 6/22/09, 8:35 AM  

I love the sound of this novel, but then I love everything from China! I'm going to try to get hold of a copy of this one.

Bonnie 6/22/09, 8:54 AM  

I found this to be a wonderful novel, so beautifully written and powerful. It was fascinating to see Pan Yuliang grow as a woman and grow into such a strong and independent woman.

Julie P. 6/22/09, 9:54 AM  

I thought this book was fascinating and very well-written! I thoroughly enjoyed it! Plus, I learned stuff too!

Alea 6/22/09, 10:24 AM  

I'm really close to finishing the book! It's amazing to see how different it was for artists in that time and place than it is now.

LisaMM 6/22/09, 10:27 AM  

Hi Beth! Thanks so much for the review and for taking the time to read this book. From your review I wasn't entirely sure if you liked it until I saw your rating. I'm glad you enjoyed the book and I can't wait to read it myself!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 6/22/09, 10:41 AM  

I was happy to read your review on this book; it was great. thanks

Anonymous,  6/22/09, 11:02 AM  

This book sounds so wonderful. I really do have to get it. =)

Meghan 6/22/09, 11:02 AM  

Oops, that last comment was me!

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) 6/22/09, 11:41 AM  

I read this with my book club when it first came out, and I really enjoyed reading and discussing it. I didn't always like Pan Yuliang bit she did some amazing things when women for the most part couldn't participate fully in society.

bermudaonion 6/22/09, 11:45 AM  

This book sounds fantastic to me! I love to read about art, other cultures and women's issues. I haven't read a lot of historical fiction, but have enjoyed what I've read.

serendipity_viv 6/22/09, 12:08 PM  

I am really looking forward to reading this one. I love books that show you a glimpse of other cultures.

Michele 6/22/09, 12:34 PM  

This review is so compelling! Would you recommend it for someone as an entry into Eastern culture or would it be too much for me to dip my toe into?

Beth F 6/22/09, 12:42 PM  

Michele: It would be a fine starter book. The references to the political movements are not gone into in great detail, but that's ok. If you know the big names and have a vague idea that China became communist, you'll do fine.

Kim 6/22/09, 2:02 PM  

First of all, this cover is stunning and grabbed me last week when I saw it in a cover art post. Your review is the first I have read for it and it does sound like a great book. Have you read anything by Lisa See. If so, how does this author compare?
Thanks for sharing--

The Tome Traveller 6/22/09, 2:25 PM  

This sounds so interesting, I'll have to bump it up my TBR stack!

Beth F 6/22/09, 3:16 PM  

Kim: I love the Lisa See books. This one takes place later in time. It's neither better nor worse, just different. Beautiful writing, but it's a 20th-century setting and based on a real person.

Melody 6/22/09, 7:49 PM  

I've read several good reviews about this book, so I need to look out for it!

Literary Feline 6/22/09, 9:33 PM  

I have a copy of this one on my shelf to read. It sure looks good! If I wasn't in the middle of two books right now, I'd pick this one right up! Great review, Beth. I am glad you enjoyed it.

The Reading Momster 6/23/09, 3:47 AM  

I have also read real good reviews about this one! Dar is actually giving away some copies!


Margot 6/23/09, 7:39 AM  

I read Good Earth a few months ago and it is still in my head. This book sounds like a good companion piece.

Unknown 6/23/09, 5:36 PM  

So glad you enjoyed this one! I read it awhile ago and loved it as well.

Serena 6/24/09, 10:20 AM  

I really enjoyed this novel and your review. I keep struggling with my review for the book...I don't feel like I can do it justice.

Anna 7/7/09, 12:29 PM  

I absolutely loved this book. Glad to see you liked it, too.

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