Thursday, December 15, 2011

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

ISBN-10: 0062081608 - Paperback $14.99
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Original edition (December 27, 2011), 320 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

The blurb:
In 1930s Shanghai, following the path of duty takes precedence over personal desires for every young Chinese woman.  For Feng, that means becoming the bride of a wealthy businessman in a marriage arranged by her parents.  In the enclosed world of the Sang household - a place of public ceremony and private cruelty - she learns that fulfilling her duty means bearing a male heir.

Ruthless and embittered by a life that has been forced on her, Feng plots a terrible revenge.  But as the years pass, she must come to a reckoning with the sacrifices and the terrible choices she has made to assure her place in family and society, before the entire country is engulfed in the fast-flowing tide of revolution.

I've long been interested in 1930s China so I thought that I'd enjoy All the Flowers in Shanghai The story focuses on Xiao Feng, a beautiful young girl born into a middle class family with a socially ambitious older sister and mother.  Xiao Feng grows up with little interest in wealth, power, or status while her older sister is groomed for a glamorous life and an advantageous marriage.  But when the older sister is unable to fulfill the marriage contract that would tie their family to the wealthy and respected Sang family, Xiao Feng is maneuvered into taking her sister's place.

Xiao Feng is intimidated by her husband's family and is unprepared for the role of First Wife to the First Son.  As the more powerful members of the Sang family humiliate and bully, Xiao Feng loses the naivete and innocence.  Xiao Feng sees that her power lies in the sons heirs that she might bring to the Sang clan.  Xiao Feng starts assert herself. Unfortunately, while the younger Xiao Feng was sweet and likable, the new Xiao Feng takes on the same cruelty and spitefulness of her tormentors.  Xiao Feng undertakes an act of revenge so cruel that it's hard to comprehend and it destroys much of the sympathy that I had for her.

As the book goes on, we learn more about Xiao Feng's life as a wealthy society matron, the friends that she makes, and the life that she carves out.  The first half of the book was reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha but instead of developing as a character, Xiao Feng becomes less interesting and less sympathetic as the story develops.  I found that I wasn't invested in Xiao Feng - even Duncan Jepson's skilled writing couldn't get me to care about Xiao Feng.  Also, I would have enjoyed the story more if Duncan Jepson devoted more attention to the what was going on in Shanghai during Japanese occupation and the Cultural Revolution. We know that the Sang family suffered, but this is told in passing and doesn't move things forward much.

Overall,  All the Flowers in Shanghai is very well written but the second part of the story doesn't meet the promise of the book's beginning.  Towards the middle of the book, I stopped caring about the main character and began to sympathize with her husband.  While I was disappointed in the latter portions of All the Flowers in Shanghai, Duncan Jepson is a talented writer and I plan to read his next novel.

About the Author:
Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films and documentaries that have been shown on the Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel.  He has also edited two Asia-based magazines, the acclaimed West East Magazine and the Asia Literary Review.  A lawyer, he lives in Hong Kong.


  1. I have this one on my wish list! It would have been good to have more on the history of the period too, but I imagine the lives of the characters, good and bad, tell their own story.

  2. You want a great read with tons of History read Lisa See Her books are amazing and filled with history Shanghai Girls and Finding Joy were great books as well as all of her other works.