From Publishers Weekly
Talk about story arc: poor girl from rural China auditions for a job as royal concubine, winds up as emperor's wife number four, gives birth to the "last Emperor," rules China as regent for 46 years. The fascinating, implausible life of Tsu Hsi, or "Orchid," was reviled by the revolutionary Chinese, but here it receives a sympathetic treatment from Min (Red Azalea; Becoming Madame Mao), who once again brilliantly lifts the public mask of a celebrated woman to reveal a contradictory character. Sexually assertive, intellectually ambitious, socially striving, Min's Orchid is also "isolated, tense, and in some vague but very real way, dissatisfied." Even after giving birth to the emperor's only son, Orchid feels trapped by the stultifying imperial rituals and persecuted by the other residents of the Forbidden City: six other royal wives, 3,000 invisible concubines and 2,000 scheming eunuchs. In addition to these powerful distractions, she has to discipline her overindulged son, outmaneuver the ruthless politician Su Shun (who wants her buried alive when the emperor dies) and advise the ailing emperor how to fend off both the Boxers and the Western "barbarians." Min, herself a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution, has done a prodigious amount of on-site research to capture the glorious, hopeless last days of the Ching dynasty. At times her writing is textbook-flat, and she sometimes loses track of her teeming cast of characters (for example, Orchid's dangerous mother-in-law and mentally ill sister). But readers will be enthralled by the gorgeously woven cultural tapestry and the psychologically astute portrait of the empress-a talented girl from the provinces who married (way) up.
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Min, author of the acclaimed Becoming Madame Mao
, which fictionalized the life of a woman demonized in history books, again melds exhaustive historical and political research with expertly articulated characters in Empress Orchid.
Critics praised the novel's linguistic dexterity (once in the U.S., Min had to learn English in six months or face deportation) and revelatory insights into the lives of women possessing few rights. Too many characters and events muddle the plot, and the style wavers from glittering to dull. Yet ultimately, the novel provides a valuable glimpse into the daily habits of fascinating historical characters and charts the last, decadent days of an empire.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.