February Flowers by Fan Wu
Washington Square Press; August 2007 (ARE)
Fiction; 244 pgs
First Sentence: After my marriage ends I move to a one-bedroom apartment five blocks from the university where I studied twelve years ago.
Reason for Reading: The novel was sent to be by the publisher Simon & Schuster for review. I decided to read it because the subject matter and setting intrigued me.
From the Publisher: Set in modern China, February Flowers tells the stories of two young women's journeys to self-discovery and reconciliation with the past.
Seventeen-year-old Ming and twenty-four-year-old Yan have very little in common other than studying at the same college. Ming, idealistic and preoccupied, lives in her own world of books, music, and imagination. Yan, by contrast, is sexy but cynical, beautiful but wild, with no sense of home. When the two meet and become friends, Ming's world is forever changed. But their differences in upbringing and ideology ultimately drive them apart, leaving each to face her dark secret alone.
Insightful, sophisticated, and rich with complex characters, February Flowers captures a society torn between tradition and modernity, dogma and freedom. It is a meditation on friendship, family, love, loss, and redemption and how a background shapes a life.
Comments: February Flowers is one of those novels that ends with a big question mark and gives pause for contemplation. There are no easy answers at the end, no clean break. There is quite a bit of ambiguity and yet also a sense of hope. This book would make a great book club selection,; it’s just ripe for discussion.
Narrated by seventeen year old Ming, the story begins with Ming looking back on the year she met Yan, a woman who would forever haunt her thoughts long after the two parted ways. Ming is the good girl while Yan is the “bad” one. The two are unlikely friends from the start and yet their friendship blossomed and grew, each of them admiring in the other what she herself did not possess. Each longed for intimacy and friendship and found it with each other.
The differences in the old traditions versus modern ideas played a big part throughout the novel. Ideas about sex and sexuality were among those differences. While Ming was growing up, sexuality was not discussed at all; this was exemplified by Ming’s utter lack of knowledge about the act of sex itself. It was an enigma to her. Homosexuality was viewed as a mental illness and considered wrong. The author also touches upon the cultural aspects of relationships between men and women as well as that of parents and children, offering readers a look into the society Ming and Yan lived in.
The author captured the sense of place: university life in the big city of Guangzhou, China, a place where many students, including Ming and Yan, longed to settle and work. The descriptions of the places as well as the culture brought the city to life. It was an environment that was very different from that of both Yan and Ming’s hometowns. Ming had spent most of her life on a farm where her parents had been re-located during the Cultural Revolution for “re-education”. Yan was a minority from Yunnan, a place she wished not to speak of or return to if she could help it.
Overall, February Flowers was an enjoyable reading experience. The novel is one that inspires thought and discussion and lingers on the mind long after completion.
Unfortunately, I never quite settled into the novel quite like I would have liked. While I felt sorry for Yan in some respects, I never really cared for her character. She remained somewhat elusive throughout the novel. On the other hand, I felt some affection for Ming, in part because I could relate to her in the sense that she was studious and an avid reader, preferring books to people, as I imagine a few of us readers occasionally do.
Perhaps my biggest fault with the book, which is no fault of the author’s and really only a complaint about the Advance Uncorrected Proof I received, is that the font used failed to record the italicized words. Ming, being quite the reader, makes references to several titles and yet they were nowhere to be found, only blank spaces. Chinese words that might have been used here and there were also missing. As a person who sometimes likes to look up the books the characters are reading, this was quite disappointing, not to mention a bit distracting.
For an interview with the author on writing this particular book check out the Compulsive Reader website.