Pauline Chen’s new novel is a great recommendation for historical fiction or romance-loving teens wishing to expand their horizons. Chen retells and dramatically shortens the Chinese novel Hong Lou Meng, often translated as Dream of the Red Chamber, which includes the most famous love triangle in Chinese literature. (For more about the original, see this piece on NPR or the author’s webpage about translations of the original novel.)
This is Chen’s first novel for adults. She is also the author of the middle grade novel, Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas.
Adult/High School– Chen follows the story of three members of the wealthy Jia family in 18th century Beijing. Daiyu, Xifeng, and Baochai live within a tightly knit closed society that allows them only limited access to life outside their splendid mansion. Their only power is contained within their closed chambers, and the story centers on their many complex relationships. Xifeng, the childless wife of the head of the family, rules with an iron fist over the other women. Daiyu, a young orphaned cousin newly arrived from the south, hopes to find comfort with her extended family but instead finds it difficult to enter their world. She befriends another young cousin, Baochai, but when they discover that they both love the same man, their friendship breaks down. Just as there are many servants, concubines, children, parents, and cousins living in household, there are many characters in this story and many side plot lines that create a unique view of life and politics in the Beijing of the 1700’s. The three women’s lives intersect not only within their chambers, but each must survive as the winds of politics change their sheltered lives. Inspired by a literary classic of the 18th century, this important piece of Chinese tradition gives Western readers insight into a fascinating culture. With so many characters and events, it’s difficult to follow at first but perseverance will open up this engaging story, and as each character unfolds, the story compels further reading. Recommend this to teens who love history, Asia, romance, and complex story lines.—Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA