The Distant Land of My Father
begins like a fairy tale: "My father was a millionaire in Shanghai in the 1930s.... On the day he was born, in the province of Shantung, neighbors presented my missionary grandparents, the only Americans for miles, with noodles in great abundance and one hundred chicken eggs, in honor of their son's birth." To the young Anna Schoene, life in Shanghai is indeed magical. There are servants, a luxurious villa, a beautiful mother who smells like Chanel No. 5, and a young, handsome, polo-playing father. Unfortunately, her father is also a smuggler and speculator who loves his freewheeling life more than anything (or anyone) else. Despite warnings, Schoene refuses to leave Shanghai even after the Japanese invade, and his wife and child retreat to Los Angeles; later, he survives imprisonment and torture only to once again choose Shanghai over his family--this time with the Communists moving in.
Bo Caldwell's sepia-toned evocation of 1930s Shanghai is lovely and physical, and given the built-in drama of its setting, this first novel ought to have the vividness of a classic movie. Yet the characters remain oddly flat while world events swirl around them. Great chunks of historical exposition seem largely undigested, while Schoene's final change of heart fails to ring true. In a sense, however, these shortcomings are beside the point. The Distant Land of My Father is above all a tragic romance, albeit one with an unusual love interest. Schoene is so besotted with Shanghai that his wife and daughter are scarcely as real to him as the city itself. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
Caldwell's memoirlike first novel begins in 1930s Shanghai, a city where enterprising foreign entrepreneurs can quickly become millionaires and just as quickly lose everything as victims of the volatile political climate. Six-year-old narrator Anna Schoene tells the tale of her insurance salesman/smuggler father, Joseph, the son of American missionaries, whose life-long obsession with the city's opportunities gains him great riches, though it ultimately costs him his family and almost his life. Anna worships her father. Her life in Shanghai has been one of privilege, thanks to his shady business dealings. But after a harrowing kidnapping incident, and frightened by the Japanese invasion of China, her mother, Genevieve, flees home to South Pasadena, Calif., taking Anna with her. Joseph is convinced that his connections will keep him safe and refuses to leave. Imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese and subsequently the Chinese Communists, he survives, although he loses everything and is finally deported back to America in 1954. Over the years Anna has distanced herself emotionally from her father, realizing he needed money and power more than he needed his family. But when the physically broken and spiritually reborn Joseph returns to California, he reconciles with the grown Anna and her family. The memoir-style structure lends the characters a certain flatness, but Caldwell's even tone gives the tale a panoramic elegance. Though lacking in narrative vitality, the novel is interesting from a historical perspective and vivid with details of prewar Shanghai and Los Angeles.
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