Spring Swallow was promised in marriage while still in her mother’s belly. When the groom dies before a wedding can take place, seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow is ordered to become a ghost bride to appease his spirit. Under her in-laws’ protection, she will be little more than a servant, unable to know real love or bear children. Refusing to accept her fate as a “bad-luck woman,” Spring Swallow flees on her wedding day.
In the city of Soochow, Spring Swallow joins a community of renowned embroiderers. The women work for Aunty Peony, whose exquisite stitching once earned her the Emperor’s love. But when Aunty Peony agrees to replicate a famous painting–a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete–betrayal and jealousy emerges within the group. Spring Swallow becomes entangled in each woman’s story of heartbreak, even while she embarks on a dangerous affair with a young revolutionary. On a journey that leads from the remote hillsides around Soochow to cosmopolitan Peking, Spring Swallow draws on the secret techniques learned from Aunty Peony and her own indomitable strength, determined to forge a life that is truly her own.
Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is the story of Spring Swallow a young Chinese woman who comes of age in the tumultuous 1930’s in and around Peking. Chinese culture is in flux, Western missionaries are ever more present, revolutionaries are stirring in the mountains and universities but old cultural traditions and social norms are not yet forgotten. I requested this historical novel (it is not a historical romance) because I was intrigued by the setting, and time period. Last year when I struggled to find historical romances to enjoy, I found the most success the farther I moved from England and the Regency. Jeannie Lin’s The Lotus Palace and Jenn Bennett’s Bitter Spirits were two of my favorite books last year.
Spring Swallow had the great misfortune of losing her parents while just a child. She is left to be indifferently raised by an aunt, who considers her a burden and a source of bad luck. Mean Aunt as Spring Swallow refers to her throughout the novel forces Spring Swallow to agree to marry a ghost at the age of 17. Her ghost groom was her mother’s best-friend’s stillborn son. The arrangement would essentially transfer Spring Swallow to her ghost husband’s family, where Spring Swallow would then owe them a lifetime of celibate servitude. Although she endures the ceremony, she refuses to accept a farcical pseudo-marriage as her lot in life, and flees her village. Hungry and homeless she is befriended by young secretive woman, named Purple who brings her into the home of her teacher Aunt Peony. Aunt Peony is a master embroider. Aunt Peony who runs an embroidery workshop from her solitary country home. Aunt Peony’s household is filled with other ill-fated young women. While Aunt Peony’s manner is harsh, and she is secretive about her history, she nevertheless teaches these young women skills and provides them a home where they can live without prostituting their bodies. For a short-time Spring Swallow find a home, among these women, before greed, secrets & men tear them apart.
The novel is best described as melodrama. The novel covers a roughly 3 years span in the life of these young women. We learn of their tarnished pasts, small diversions, faithless lovers, dashed dreams and tragic choices as they come and go from Spring Swallow’s life. We follow Spring Swallow from her days as a timid runaway bride to a ghost, to her romance with revolutionary and her eventual contentment in an unconventional marriage with a unlikely groom.
While the novel is a treasure trove of information about the everyday life of villagers and poor city dwellers in 1930’s China and provided a rich history lesson about the often forgotten artisans who created China’s gorgeous embroidery, the story relied to often on coincidence & chance. Too often Spring Swallow learns life changing news by running into just the right person or reading just the right newspaper. I grew dismayed that not one Chinese character in the novel treated Spring Swallow with disinterested kindness or compassion. Everyone including her beloved revolutionary husband Shang Feng, always wanted something from her or betrayed and abandoned her. The only beacons of generosity and love in the novel are a pair of Catholic missionaries, Father Edwin and Ryan McFarland, who take Spring Swallow in when she most needs them. Spring Swallow is heroic in that she survives a life that killed so many of her contemporaries, and that she is able to make opportunist choices of survival without harming others. In the end when her sacrifice, loyalty and tenacity are rewarded with safety, security and recognition, her story feels like a uncomfortable & self-congratulatory fable about compromise.
I received a review copy of Yip’s Secret of a Thousand Beauties from Kensington Books via NetGalley.
You can buy a copy here.