19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
I always find it hard to read books with a protagonist I don't particularly like. Samuel Pickens is perverted and obsessed with Anabelle, who seems more like a homage to the literary nymphets who have gone before her than a real person. Of course, the story is told in first person by Samuel himself, who is molesting mannequins while fantasizing about Annabelle's ghost - like Humbert Humbert's Dolores she is not a real person to him.
Snark Alert: I kept feeling like I had read this book before, right down to all the butterfly allusions. It seemed like the real story was about the rise and fall of Samuel's penis. (oh dear, I hate puns)
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
When reading this mess of a book, which I don't recommend by the way, it helps to think of it as three separate books, sequentially chronicling the life of our putative "hero" Samuel Pickens, but differing greatly in writing style.
The first book, lasting until Pickens takes up his position as tutor of the emperor of China, is pure farce, tragicomic farce to be sure (I counted at least five dead and three maimed, including one death by butterflies), but so ludicrously over the top that the only appropriate response to it is laughter,... if you can bring yourself to laugh at such things. After first being seduced out of his virginity at Phillips Andover prep school by a 19th Century Mrs. Robinson (and suffering the tortures of the damned after being told she was pregnant until the dolt finally realizes that Mrs. D had been with virtually every other male on campus), Pickens meets and falls head over heels in love/lust with the woman who will haunt his waking hours and his dreams for the rest of his life: the Chinese born and raised daughter of missionaries, Annabelle Hawthorne. She returns his affections, but this is 1891, so a lot more sneaking around is required. On the night they planned to consummate their relationship between a couple of haystacks on campus, at the very moment in fact, Annabelle's opium pipe sets the hay on fire, incinerating her and leaving Pickens bereft and blue balled.
He responds by going insane, but this is a literary, not a clinical madness. Several supposedly comic events follow as Pickens comes to believe he has been possessed by Annabelle's ghost: obsessive writing (hundreds of letters to Annabelle), a failed suicide attempt involving burning the twelve bound volumes of said letters, sex with mannequins, getting an A+ in Synchronized Swimming, delusions in which New Haven is transformed into Peking, fooling psychiatrists trying to commit him with the able advice of Annabelle's ghost, a farcical exorcism attempt in Chinatown, signing up to be a missionary to China out of the belief that Annabelle's ghost was sending him there despite his parents' furious threats (they wanted him to join the family law firm), the death of his parents and the maiming of several co-conspirators in this struggle when their yacht is rammed and sunk by a drunken lobsterman, a farcical legal battle for his inheritance based on the question of which parent died first, a phony (from his POV) but necessary to become a missionary marriage to a woman who slightly resembled Annabelle, a wedding night that results in a corpse the next morning (apparently from the bride's concealed from him extremely high blood pressure), and finally before the carnage can continue the offering of a job as tutor to the young emperor of China.
Shortly after arriving in China (and conning the American legation into giving him free room and board by telling never ending, ludicrously tall tales about his escapades with the Boxers), Pickens arrives at the Forbidden City to meet his teenage royal student and his spoiled brat 4th wife, Empress Qiu Rong, who is a dead ringer for Annabelle, albeit Annabelle at 13! Now, the mood and style begins to change as a reluctant but lust (love?) weakened Pickens is drafted into the boy emperor's struggle to reform the government in the face of fierce opposition from corrupt and powerful court eunuchs. One almost begins to admire Pickens' increasingly heroic behavior, especially his single minded devotion to the protection of Q from murderous enemies.
Then, the mood and style change once again as evil triumphs and sends our heroes fleeing at the same time unmistakably confirming that Pickens is every bit the pedophile pervert once suspected. (It's a bit unclear why. When Pickens meets Annabelle, she is 19, a year OLDER than he is and his attraction to Q would presumably be based upon her resemblance to Annabelle, not her 13 years, so Pickens' subsequent behavior makes less sense than the author assumes.) It also confirms our worst suspicions about just about everyone else involved. I cannot recall ever seeing court eunuchs or Christian missionaries portrayed more despicably or for that matter, fathers. With the noticeable exception of a doting stepfather, fathers in this novel are portrayed as raving monsters or at least uncaring cold calculators, to the point that one wonders if Da Chen might be working out some personal issues. With the sole exception of Pickens' ever faithful servant boy, there isn't a likable major character left by the end, which left this reader fervently hoping for long and painful deaths for the remaining major protagonists.
Historically, this novel is also a joke, appearing to conflate major incidents and historical figures from the Taiping Rebellion, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Last Emperor into one sordid and sorry mess.
Note: I actually warned people about this novel, based on the large number of hostile reviews, so how did I end up selecting it? Confusion over a major upcoming Amazon Vine rule change that I feared would leave me unable to select ANYTHING for the foreseeable future. Running out of time and items of any interest at all, I figured, "How bad could a novel set in Boxer Rebellion China truly be?"
I had no idea.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2013
I read an article somewhere online that talked about how some books that are spawned from MFA Creative Writing programs have a distinctive way of coming across; and I've noticed this after reading Da Chen's "My Last Empress." (Note: Author Da Chen is a Creative Writing professor; and I recall reading a book by an MFA student, with a similar style to Chen's, called "Troublemaker and Other Saints"). There are no characters to root for, no plot to speak of, no stakes for the main characters, no obstacles. And, while I realize there are some shades of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," my knowledge mainly come from the film adaptations rather than the novel, so I cannot make direct comparisons between Nabokov and Chen's books.
The story is as follows: The setting is late 19th/early 20th century, and Samuel Pickens is a Caucasian man from America, possibly middle-class or slightly above, who seems to have connections (family or "friends") who get him out of scraps that may be scandalous in a legal/moral sense, or get him into academic places that other individuals may have big difficulty getting into. His obsession is a girl named Annabelle, who, from my understanding grew up in Asia...and winds up going back there. Pickens just so happens gets a job as a tutor for the Chinese prince, which allows Pickens to go looking for her. It turns out that he falls for a 13 year old half-Asian (blonde hair, blue-eyed, but with almond-shaped eyes) who looks like Annabelle, save for the eyes...that show her Asian heritage, and very much says that this 13 year old - named Qiu Rong - has an Asian father. Pickens and Qiu Rong wind up having a sexual relationship under the nose of the prince, whom somehow is oblivious to it all. (I believe he is a teenager himself, albeit one who is in his late teens, but he doesn't come off very bright, or very strong as a character or person). The relationship pretty much takes care of Pickens looking for Annabelle since Qiu Rong embodies her.
The book is further filled by "tangents" (not necessarily side plots) that has Pickens and Qiu Rong interested in who her father really is, and what happened to Annabelle (thirteen years before Pickens arrived in China, from my understanding); another "tangent" is trying to find out who is stealing from the royal family. Unfortunately, with both of these tangents, there is no sense of urgency....and it not entirely clear who is doing what to whom (e.g. a female character named "Grandpa" seems to be one who has some political power over Qiu Rong and the prince; and a Chinese man named Wang Dan, who has a unique genital "issue," is cryptic when he is approached about being Qiu Rong's father).
There are no likable characters. Samuel Pickens comes off as expecting everything to fall in his lap, and all he wants to do is be with Qiu Rong, who has satiated his wanting for Annabelle. On the other hand, the biracial Qiu Rong comes off as spoiled, rash....even though she is 13, but written to talk and act like someone twice her age. Even minor characters come and go; it is hard to keep track of who is who, and none made an impression on me as a reader.
Most importantly, in addition to all the above issues, there was a problem of world-building; it wasn't clear where characters were for majority of book since it seemed settings frequently changed.
The book overall comes off as a draft that needed to be fleshed out with better pacing, better characters, and an actual story.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2013
I found this bizarre and nasty. It is packed with sexual malice, full of images of castration, blood, humiliation, sado-everything plus pyro-eroticism. The writing shifts between a mannered sort of orotundity to an untidy colloquialism. Representative samples: "I felt the warmth of her hand hungering over my sword. Silky stockings ripped and I plowed blindly into the mud of her." How many metaphors can be mixed in just two sentences?) "Her assertiveness with certain positional demands and familiarity with all her vital organs and mine alike..." "A palace girl was knocked up by the emperor once. It should have been a joyful occasion, but her nipples were cut off, and the infant gouged from her womb..." Then moving from the nasty to the banal: "See?" Grandpa uttered with annoyance. "There you go again with your foreign tongue when I'm not done talking."
I looked for aspects of the book which would make it worth reading despite its repellent style, story and characters. I didn't find any. It lacks evocation of the Imperial Palace. The characters are inert.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
My Last Empress had the potential to be a lovely, wildly imaginative story (in the vein of Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits) - but for me it had one fatal flaw. The story's main character and narrator, Samuel Pickens, has a dark side that consumes the integrity and beauty of the otherwise well-crafted story. Sexual perversion is the driving force that motivates Pickens; he constantly lusts after dead women and children in a graphic manner that I found increasingly distasteful. While I am not a prude, I felt that the author's constant graphic descriptions of Pickens' creepy, predatory thoughts did nothing to enhance the story - in fact these awkward passages often severely detracted from the story. Da Chen is an excellent, nimble writer, able to artfully command words to create evocative imagery. However, during the many sexual passages of My Last Empress, his writing takes on a forced, flowery, "romance novel" tone - a heaviness that belies what may be his own discomfort with his creepy, sadistic and delusional main character. I understand that the author may have been attempting to make a strong point about his character's flaws, however, his treatment of Pickens is so heavy-handed that it is off-putting to the point that is detracts from the story in general. What had the potential to be a fascinating and beautiful story was hopelessly marred by the truly creepy and unnecessary predilections of the main character.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2012
At times I felt like I was reading Nabokov, but a randier Nabokov if that could be. The voice of Da's narrator is as seductive as that of Humbert. I'm not sure if the character is more or less sympathetic in the long run though. I'm still undecided about the occasionally explicit sex (at least I found it explicit) and whether it was really needed to establish the characters. That will probably be a "to each his own" concern. if you are a fan of Da's earlier works, you'll likely enjoy this as well.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I guess I expected some poetry, but poetry with such a dislikeable narrator is, to say the least, on the eccentric side. Nevertheless, I found myself engrossed. This is a novel of obsession with a ghost and a bit Lolita-like. If the eroticesm doesn't bother you, you will probably enjoy this, disgusting as the narrator is.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Da Chen initially published several memoirs, including Sounds of the River : A Young Man's University Days in Beijing. He has then been writing fiction set in China. His latest book is an eccentric story. Set at the end of the 19th century in the US, and then fading Imperial Qing Dynasty China.
Although fictional, a number of the main characters are inspired by historical figures and groups, such as the Pu-Yi, the last Emperor, the Dowager Empress, the Tai-ping rebellion leaders..
The narrator and anti-hero, Samuel Pickens, is a deeply flawed individual. Prone to obsession and romance, he endures some rather odd coincidences, when his youthful lovers die in horrible accidents. Obsessed with one, Annabelle, whose ghost, at least in Pickens mind, guides his life, causing the deaths of others (including his parents) to set up the proper conditions for him to go to China, where Annabelle lived for a period of time. His obsession with getting to China achieved, Pickens ravels to China to become a tutor for the emperor, and then falls in love with the child bride (13 years old) who is the 4th Consort to the Emperor. What follows is a Lolita-like obsession, which is by far the most disturbing part of the book.
Da Chen is also able to bring the corrupt core of palace to life, and we see what a perverting influence they have on the court.
What is sometimes bizarre while reading this book is that Da Chen often ornate and flowery language, especially when describing sexual acts. The intent seems to be to call to mind Victorian Era writing.
Nevertheless, this improbable romance is usually more entertaining than not.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I'm going to confess I could hardly get through what promised to be an interesting novel set in Imperial China. The fault perhaps lies with the reviewer here, but this kind of book is not to my tastes UNLESS the author is utterly superb. So for this tale of lost love set in an exotic setting, the intricate, literary style is reminiscent of Nabokov. I didn't care for the protagonist Samuel Pickens, so, the sexual content was not "sexy" to me as he was unpleasant. He was intended to be a flawed character, but the mix of sexual content with plays on words, while being about an unlikable man didn't work for me.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2012
And now for something completely different...
Mentally-disturbed. Over-sexed. Selfish and self-loathing. Meet our hero, Samuel Pickens,son of an up-right and prosperous turn of the century New England lawyer. Expected to follow in his father's oppresive and repressed footsteps, he meets the beautiful and fresh young Annabelle after his first tawdry affair with an older woman and his life begins to revolve around her. Even after her tragic death, her flitting butterfly spirit guides him in his every move, from finishing school, through his first marriage, his parents' deaths and his fateful trip to China, where Annabelle was raised as a Christian missionary. He becomes the tutor to the effiminate and intelligent puppet Emperor of the Qing dynasty and falls in love with the very young and very jaded Empress Q. Samuel becomes the Emperor's right-hand man to his own detriment, and when he and Empress Q are forced to make a run for their lives, both their fates are sealed and it is just a matter of time before they are discovered.
The descriptive writing in this book was thorough and poetic, though I felt at times a little convoluted and tedious. The dialogue is realistic, the characters fully developed.If you enjoy a little Eastern mysticism together with an abundance of individual depravity, this is the book for you.