June’s TBR challenge theme is “More than One” (multiple books by this author in your TBR). I was spoilt for choice since I have a bad habit of being caught up on buying an author even when I’m not caught up on reading her.
Given my struggles with last month’s challenge book, I wanted something I’d love, so I narrowed it to two authors: Jeannie Lin and Molly O’Keefe. Here is where I admit, shame-faced, that while I had read and loved one book by each, and then bought a lot more books by each, I had still only read the one. They are both way overdue to be pulled from the TBR. My choice of Lin’s Tang-dynasty historical The Lotus Palace was sparked by reading her blog post on not seeking reviews, because she’s an author I think deserves a much wider audience. (Don’t worry, Molly O’Keefe, I plan to get to one of yours soon).
So how did it go? I loved it.
Here’s the blurb (from the author’s website):
It is a time of celebration in the Pingkang Li, where imperial scholars and bureaucrats mingle with beautiful courtesans. At the center is the Lotus Palace, home of the most exquisite courtesans in China…
Maidservant Yue-ying is not one of those beauties. Street-smart and practical, she’s content to live in the shadow of her infamous mistress-until she meets the aristocratic playboy Bai Huang.
Bai Huang lives in a privileged world Yue-ying can barely imagine, yet alone share, but as they are thrown together in an attempt to solve a deadly mystery, they both start to dream of a different life. Yet Bai Huang’s position means that all she could ever be to him is his concubine-will she sacrifice her pride to follow her heart?
What it doesn’t say, but I realized a chapter or so in, is that this is a riff on The Scarlet Pimpernel, featuring a hero who pretends to be a dim-witted pleasure-seeker as a cover for his information gathering. I’ve loved The Scarlet Pimpernel since my high school French teacher, definitely a romantic, showed us the Anthony Andrews-Jane Seymour version in class. I was won over from the start.
The Lotus Palace is much more than a play on a classic story; in fact, aside from the basics of the hero’s character, it has very little in common with The Scarlet Pimpernel. I loved how Lin built on that foundation themes of hidden truths, of appearance vs. reality, and of learning to see clearly/see from different perspectives. The Pingkang li is full of people keeping secrets and playing roles:
No matter how much Huang thought he knew the courtesans of the North Hamlet, no matter what their public personas might reveal, they kept a part of themselves guarded away. That was why he needed Yue-ying’s insight.
In this setting, a murder mystery fits neatly into the love story, the two plots playing off each other.
Yue-ying and Bai Huang both capitalize on their ability to hide in plain sight: people underestimate and look past them, and so they can observe others carefully. Each sees the other when no one else does, and they slowly become open and vulnerable enough to reveal themselves fully to each other.
Lowering your defenses is painful, and some of the scenes I found most moving were those where the lovers struggle to do so. The first time Yue-ying and Huang sleep together, she tries to forget her past in a brothel. But despite his gentleness and attentiveness, despite the fact that for the first time she is freely choosing sex, “Though her blood warmed, her mind remained cold. The two halves of her couldn’t find one another.” This scene almost made me cry. I love a good bad sex scene: I love it when romance attends to the pain, messiness, and failure that is sometimes part of sexual intimacy and the vulnerability it can bring. That’s part of my own experience, and I seldom find it explored in fiction. The sex gets better, of course–and it means more when it does because of the difficulty in getting there.
The final thing I want to say is how much I love the way Lin uses her historical setting. She’s very good at building her world without dumping a lot of exposition into her novels; her prose also conveys the fact that these characters speak a different language without dropping in Chinese phrases (unlike those Greek endearments that pepper a Harlequin Presents). It’s very deftly done. And she uses the class divisions and hierarchies of this society to create a very believable conflict keeping her lovers apart, rather than casting them aside in favor of something more artificial (I’m not good enough! Mommy didn’t love me!). I really didn’t see how she was going to resolve the conflict, though I knew she would. The resolution is a bit fairytale, but it too draws on the social and cultural expectations Lin establishes, so I bought it.
None of the characters deny or ignore the privilege accruing to Bai Huang as an aristocrat and a man. Yue-ying challenges him after he steals a kiss from her:
“This sort of thing is a game, as if you had a right to everything in the world for your amusement. . . . You have the privilege of turning everything into a jest when I’ve never had the privilege to even refuse such an act.”
And yet, the privileged also are constrained; Bai Huang is bound by duty to his family and can’t do or have whatever he wants. His sister, Wei-wei, envies the freedom Yue-ying has to move about the city, though that freedom comes at the expense of Yue-ying’s low status. Everyone in the story is free in some ways, powerful in some ways, trapped in other ways. They’re all struggling to find agency and a life they can choose within the constraints their society places on them.
For the understated but deeply emotional love story, the great world-building, the page-turning mystery, and the strong secondary characters, The Lotus Palace is a book to love.