Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck

 After a year and a half reading drought, broken only by spots of tortured page-turning, I've been on a reading roll. Four books in two weeks.

It's hard to say which has been the best of the lot, but certainly Pearl S. Buck's Pavilion of Women has provided some of the most engrossing and thought-provoking reading. The story of a woman in China in the early 1900s, it traces the spiritual growth resulting from her fortieth birthday decision to no longer engage in sex with her husband, but to instead move to a building in their compound and live a "peaceful" life. She buys a concubine for her husband to take her place in bed (a decision which, even then, was somewhat shocking). Additionally, she's a bit of a meddler, and wants to see all of her four sons married and producing children. To this end, she hires a foreign tutor for one of her sons, in order that he might become more attractive in the eyes of a "modern" Chinese woman. Of course none of her carefully planned and orchestrated decisions turns out as she might wish, as the emotional lives of people are far more complicated than the cool reserve she herself portrays.

I must admit that the description of Madame Wu initially put me off. It was as if she was made of marble, perfect in every way, and her husband's vision of her as some sort of goddess seemed appropriate--for she barely seemed human. This must be Buck's intent, to create a chasm between the reader and Madame Wu, for our confusion in not understanding this woman is certainly, at last, reflected in the journey that Madame Wu must take as she realizes she does not understand her own heart.

Artfully done, the progression of a woman learning her own heart and mind, and finding love unexpectedly, is as delicate and lush as a Chinese brushstroke painting. As her understanding unfolds amidst the growing chaos of her coldly manipulated family, she is taken from tragedy to spiritual heights that most of us would envy. In the end, that is the only real complaint I've got with Pavilion of Women: Madame Wu, at the finish, approaches once again the marble perfection of the early section, making her distant from we readers, so far from emotional and spiritual divineness ourselves.

On the other hand, the changing philosophies on the page challenged me to consider my own notions of love, to broaden the parameters of my compassion, and to see the world through another's eyes--which last might, ultimately, be Buck's intent after all.

If this makes it sound as if Pavilion is a meandering philosophical read, far from it. Filled with dramatic events large and small and a cast of well-drawn characters, not to mention exquisite writing, Pavilion is a page-turner. And I found myself constantly thinking of Madame Wu throughout the day when I could not read. Even now, two weeks after having finished it, the book lingers in my mind, and that is the hallmark of something truly wonderful.


I'm finishing Flowers for Algernon today, and it's filled my mind with more questions and considerations than, perhaps, Pavilion, though of an entirely different kind. My thoughts on that book tomorrow. And if you've now got the impression that I'm only reading last century's classic fiction, fear not: I read two dystopian YA novels in between, and they were DA BOMB. No review? Ah, well, they are the first two of a trilogy, with the third coming out the end of October. I will not praise them to the heavens only to have you find out, tragically, that you must wait for the third -- because trust me, when I went to download the third book and realized it wasn't available, there was much weeping and pulling of hair and storming about the room.

So, Flowers will be finished tonight. After, of course, my yearly trip to the Ren Fest! Assuming I'll be in a state to read after having had more than my fill of pumpkin beer. :)

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