I must say this historical novel is quite different from anything I’ve read thus far in the genre. It is a story of impossible love between a Chinese bondmaid and a young Jewish man in the Jewish community of 19th century China. The crux of the story lies in the spiritual or ideological clash between the Chinese and the Jewish culture, and this clash is seen as a subtle force that simmers beneath the surface of differing customs and traditions, until it bubbles up and creates the ultimate barrier that keeps the lovers apart.
Peony is a Chinese bondmaid sold in childhood to the Ezra household to serve their only son David. They grow up together and develop a mutual bond. Within the Ezra household, the husband is easy going and loves the Chinese way of life and is grateful for the kindness shown to him and his by the Chinese, while the wife is a strong-willed woman whose sole aim in life is to uphold the Jewish Law and traditions. But Peony is witty enough to understand there’s no future for her love for David. In order to be able to stay near him, she devises a scheme for David to wed a beautiful Chinese woman, even knowing that her subterfuge would derail Madam Ezra’s plan to get David married to a traditional Jewish girl. From here the plot thickens until the climax is reached, when an incident forces David, now married with children but still struggling with restlessness, to reveal his true feelings for Peony, which ironically leaves her no choice but to seek refuge in a nunnery.
Buck writes with a simple and candid style, but what really stands out is the intensity and depth of emotions she succeeds in painting – it literally holds the readers’ breath! I think she writes with great sympathy about the dilemma of the diminishing Jewish community in China who tried futilely to resist assimilation into their foreign host country who showed them kindness and tolerance while the rest of the world continued to persecute them.
It was inevitable, when people were kind and just to one another, that the walls between them fell and they became one humanity.
There is an Afterword by Wendy R. Abraham, who is a scholar of the history of the Jewish descendants of Kaifeng. She attests to the authenticity of the historical background of the novel. Some interesting tidbits in the Afterword:
The actual history of the Jews’ presence in China dates back at least to the 8th century.
The first Jewish synagogue in Kaifeng dates to 1163 (the Southern Song Dynasty).
I’m giving this novel 4.3 stars.