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on May 30, 2011
Being of Chinese descent, I thought it would be interesting to read how a foreigner made such an impact on Chinese history. I really like to read historical fiction, but I was extremely disappointed in this book. The characters were more like caricatures than real flesh and blood people. The writing was very stilted and amateurish. There was a voyeuristic feel to this book with WAY too much emphasis on the sexual thoughts and activities of Robert Hart and not enough plot formation or information on his true contributions to Chinese society. It seemed as if the the author was exploiting the culture of China so that he could fantasize about chinese women. I honestly don't know how this book received so many 4- and 5-star reviews. I agree with another reviewer who said, "DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK!" I certainly won't be making the same mistake again by buying the sequel.
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on March 31, 2008
My Splendid Concubine is the story of Sir Robert Hart, a nineteenth century British consular and customs official who, over several decades, grew into a position of unprecedented respect and trust in China. The story opens in 1908 with the Empress Dowager granting an audience in the Forbidden City to an elderly Hart, Inspector General of Chinese Maritime Customs, but the novel is really about Hart's early days in China as a young interpreter.

Hart travels to China in 1854 seeking to redeem himself after a shameful episode of wenching and carousing at college that embarrassed his family. He first meets Sir John Bowring, Governor of Hong Kong, who advises him to study everything around him in an effort to understand the Chinese and learn something new everyday. This is the only advice of its kind he receives from his own people, for Hart discovers that the rest of the Westerners view the Chinese culture with disdain and superiority. His first employer, for example, chastises him for trying to learn Mandarin, saying, "It is their place to understand us. We don't have to understand them."

While most of the British and American officials dismiss the Chinese as superstitious heathens, there is one part of the Chinese culture they are quick to assimilate: the taking of concubines. Hart finds it repugnantly hypocritical that his fellow countrymen should hold so little respect for the culture while indulging their own desires in a manner that Victorian society would condemn. He notes that, "on one hand the Europeans and British were shoving Christianity's message of brotherly love down the Chinese collective throat with the barrel of a rifle. At the same time foreign merchants, mostly British, were selling opium to the populace." Hart hopes to rise above such prejudice and lack of ethics, but finds himself sorely tempted by repeated opportunities to sample a service that the Chinese take for granted and the Westerners are perfectly happy to exploit.

And then Hart meets Ayaou, a fiery and courageous girl from the lowest sector of Chinese society, the boat people. Their startling and memorable introduction - which I will not reveal here - sparks a passion that takes the young Englishman by storm. Hart is willing to bankrupt himself to buy Ayaou from her father, who is selling her to provide for the rest of his family, but circumstances whisk her away and Hart finds himself compelled to buy her sister, rather than let the younger girl fall into undesirable hands.

Suddenly Hart owns a concubine, although not the woman he loves, and he is caught between his own Christian beliefs and the worshipful attention of young Shao-mei, who desperately wants to earn the love of her master. And what of Ayaou, who has been sold to the violent and unstable American mercenary soldier Frederick Townsend Ward? What ethics will Hart be willing to compromise in order to get her back?

Lloyd Lofthouse has created a rich cast of characters against the exotic and fascinating backdrop of nineteenth century China. Young Robert Hart is a sympathetic character who earnestly seeks to understand the Chinese culture in order to win acceptance there, and to find peace within his own soul. As Hart learns, so does the reader, for the author has skillfully woven lessons of the Chinese culture into the plot and setting. The girls, Ayaou and Shao-mei, are individually defined as characters and truly believable as sisters: sensually mature, playfully young, one moment presenting a united sisterly front, and the next moment squabbling with jealousy. And I have not even touched upon the pirates, the mercenaries, the opium dealers, and Hart's philosophizing eunuch servant! Don't pass up this debut novel by an author who will surely continue Robert Hart's saga and legendary career in a second novel.
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on December 26, 2010
This book was horrible. I love historical fiction, but this seemed more of an excuse for musings on religion and soft-core porn; not a good combination. The writing was jumbled and repetitive and the story was never resolved. In the first twenty pages there were multiple references to the same incident (the dead babies in the water), which basically repeated the same information over and over again. It was frustrating that the writer didn't seem to trust the reader to remember details that occurred only pages before. Instead, he felt it was necessary to constantly repeat information that didn't add to the story at all. I wish I hadn't spent the $3.99 to buy this for my Kindle.
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on April 3, 2011
After describing the great man that the hero of the book was, I was set up to believe I would learn about his contributions to China and learn more about his roll in Chinese history. Instead it turned into a trite and tirering porno story about his love for his two concubines he purchased and the constant threat of their being re-posessed by the bad man. - So disapointing.
3636 comments17 of 21 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you?YesNoReport abuse
on August 26, 2011
What could have been a really, really interesting story was completely drowned in premature ejaculation and the strange secondary theme of overcoming a religion-forbidden love for two women. I was bored silly and annoyed by how many times the story was interrupted by a sex scene.

I didn't even bother finishing the book, and frankly I'm annoyed at myself for buying the entire saga for my Kindle. If you are overcome by curiosity, check them out at the library so you don't feel like you've wasted your money on garbage.
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on December 8, 2012
Writing a book is hard. As a writer, I know how difficult it is to put the pen to paper and put what you have to say out there for the world to see and then be ripped apart. I try to be fair in my reviews and, even when they aren't very good, look for the positive and leave the choice of whether or not to read the book up to my readers. My reviews are my opinion - nothing more.

But sometimes, you come across a book that is so bad that it becomes a moral duty to spare others the pain of reading it. I really hate to go that far in a review, but this book is so bad I even feel bad for Lofthouse's wife. Let me explain.

My Splendid Concubine claims to be about how Robert Hart, one of the most important and influential Western men in Chinese history, kept his concubine, his one true love, a secret. As a customs officer in Ningpo, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou from 1854-1908, Robert Hart spent his life trying to keep the faltering Qing dynasty from going bankrupt. He was an Imperialist when most of the rest of the world wasn't (including most Chinese people). While the dynasty did fall in 1911, Hart was often referred to the only true Western friend of China. In short, Robert Hart is a fascinating individual who led an amazing life during one of the most dynamic times of Chinese history.

What the book is actually about, though, is the one year of Robert's life in China when he had two concubines - sisters. Which one is the splendid one? I have no idea.

Now, I have no problem with the book focusing on this one part of his long life. I like a good romance and to focus on the Victorian gentleman hiding away his secret Chinese lover sounded very exciting. The problem is the delivery. The book is extremely soft-core pornish. Almost every single page describes Hart's erection in some manner. Only a quarter of a way through the book I knew far more about Robert Hart's erections than any woman should, even his concubine(s). He is also described as a rather perverted individual (and not in a good way). The book is supposed to be about an epic love, yet Hart views every woman he sees only as an object of sexual desire. He has the uncanny ability to "feel the heat" of a woman simply by being in her presence, even if she is a 6-year old girl. He even lusts after his own sister, Mary, wishing they weren't blood related. He only meets one Western woman in the course of the book, and his description focuses solely on the woman's breasts. He does not see women as people (like he claims, repeatedly, ad nauseum), but as a collection of skin, breasts, wetness, and warmth.

Hart is also portrayed as a hypocrite with a superiority complex. He repeatedly says that be found the ownership of women to be wrong, yet he then proceeds to purchase two. This was OK in his mind because 1) he was in love, and 2) it was "more like a dowry," (even though in neither case the money went to the girls' father).

The "struggle" of Hart's religious upbringing clashing with his love of both his concubines is supposed to be the "poignant" part of Lofthouse's narrative. But, again, the delivery is a failure. The struggle is simple: Christians have one wife while the Chinese (can) have many. Just because someone is Chinese, it does not automatically mean they have many wives and concubines, but it is allowed and encouraged if one can afford it. But to be Christian, one may only have one wife - no exceptions. But rather than being either Christian or Chinese, Hart attempts to be both. In one of the most maddening and stupidly humorous expressions of this problem Hart says (in a paraphrase), 'wait, it isn't a preacher who is allowed to judge me; only God can tell me what to do,' even though Hart never has a discussion of multiple wives with the missionary preacher. The only person telling Hart that he can't love two women is his bible, the word of God. Even when God speaks, he doesn't listen. In fact, the only admonition the preacher actually gives him is that he should introduce the women to the bible. However, Hart refuses to do this because "then they might leave him." He realizes the bible is truth, but wants to break it's covenants for his own satisfaction. To do so he must keep his women in ignorance of the truth (possibly damning their immortal souls) just so he can keep them both in his possession and bed and fantasies. Throughout the book he makes bad decisions for his girls because of his own selfishness.

The overall structure of the book is also severely lacking. The book opens with Hart, in his 80s, going to see the Dowager Empress Cixi. He goes there to talk to her about the fact that he "had a concubine once." The book then flashes back to tell the tale. But the ending never goes back to the scene with the empress to explain why he would tell her this. You never find out which concubine is the "splendid" one. You never even find out who was trying to kill him for most of the book. There is no closure to this book. It was an obnoxious read with an abrupt and painful ending. There is a sequel, Our Hart: Elegy for a Concubine, but I really can't take any more of Lofthouse's writing.

The real pain of the book is the negative characterization of Hart. The perverted, selfish, idiotic representation in this book is the most unfair characterization of this influential man imaginable. It makes me want to write my own narrative of Hart's life just so salvage his reputation. I think I'll add that to my list of possible books to work on.

I really didn't know how this book was published until I realized that the forward was written by Anchee Min, Lofthouse's wife. Anchee Min is one of the most important writers of English Chinese literature today. I have several books written by her and have enjoyed her writing. I can only guess that Lofthouse was able to get his book published by riding his wife's coattails and I can just imagine poor Min having to grit through her teeth as she had to smile and say, "yeah, Lloyd, this book is great." Poor woman.

I'm not really sure how to rate this book as I can't give it anything less than one star, but that seems like a stark insult to any books that I have given two stars to.
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on February 22, 2011
I came away from this book wondering why I had spent time on it. To many sex imaginations (because who really knows what happens between three people). This seemed more like the sexual fantasy of the author and NOT the historical novel is is purported to be. I haven't found an ending to a book that is so abrupt and irrelevant in many years. It felt like being dropped off a cliff. The last couple of chapters I skimmed because it was just a continuation of the mindless sexual drivel. Not worth the money or the time. DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK.
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on June 4, 2010
Very well written descriptions of China and their customs. Great descriptions of the way Eurpeans looked at the Chinese and what the Chinese thought of the Europeans. I loved the book but it had a very abrupt ending....
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on May 2, 2008
Any time I read a book written by a first-time author, I worry that no matter how interesting the subject matter, the writing style will be so amateurish that it will turn me off immediately. I had these concerns with the first chapter of My Splendid Concubine, as the writing seemed very choppy. But once I got past the first chapter, the writing seemed to be coming from a completely different author. By the way, chapter one is a framing sequence which I didn't find to be particularly necessary, so don't worry if you pick the book up yourself. Read on, you won't be disappointed.

Lofthouse has crafted a story about an Irishman's attempts to understand the culture of China in the 19th century, framed in large part on the love affair between the main character and a Chinese concubine. Our hero must battle with his Catholic upbringing in order to first bring himself to admit his love for the woman, and then decide whether he can live in sin with her.

The story contains some scenes of action, and some scenes of sexual activity--not for the kids--but its most interesting aspects involve Chinese culture and the reasons behind how things were done back then. Explaining how fathers sell their children to feed the rest of the family, how rich men can simultaneously and openly have wives, concubines, and pillow-girls live in the same household, why young boys would willingly undergo castration so they can get a better job--these are just a few examples of the wealth of information contained in the book.

The main character, Robert Hart, was a real person--Inspector General for Chinese Maritime Customs--but it is not necessary to know anything about the man to enjoy the book. Whether Hart is real or fictional, Lofthouse has written characters who have a real depth of feeling, the kind of characters you want to hear more about. It helps that the book is open-ended, as the reader is sure to want to learn what comes next for our hero. Odds are that Lofthouse's writing ability will continue to improve and the second book in the series will be even better. I'll definitely be one to buy it.
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on April 26, 2011
I have to revise my review and now give this book one star instead of two. The reason is that the author continues to leave comments on mine and other non-favorable reviews telling us how wrong we are and how others think his book is well written. I find this type of behavior by the author to be offensive and badgering. If the author is trying to turn this reader from ever reading another one of his books, he has succeeded. (Lloyd, please do not leave another comment in response, you are only making things worse.) I may also let Amazon know as well.

---------------------------

First of all, I want to say that I am impressed with the obviously extensive research done by the author. I can also attest to the accuracy of his phoenetically spelled Chinese words, as I am a native Chinese speaker. His description of Chinese holidays and festivities, as well as the superstitions surrounding various Chinese food items, are likewise accurate.

Having said that, although the book is objectively accuate in its descriptions of the Chinese cultures and lives; the descriptions themselves leave much to be desired. I find the writing to be choppy and linear. The characters were never fully developed so the readers can relate to them personally. The characters' sexually lives were perhaps too fully developed. The dialogues were made up with short, dry, fact telling sentences and do not read like a natural dialogue. It's like watching a bad TV movie with even worse actors who infused no emotion into his lines and was just reading these lines with a monotone voice. I get that the author was trying to convey many educational details in these dialogues but do they have to read like a lecture?

Anyway, I guess what I am saying is, although the subject matter is interesting, the telling of the story did nothing for me. I also agree with the other reviewers who felt this book was almost soft porn. Was it really necessary to write about sex that much in order to convey how he felt about his girls? After a while, that whole premise just got old.

This book was on sale for $1.96 to purchase on Kindle; and that's about how much this book should be worth.
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