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The Middle Kingdom Paperback – March 1, 1992
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From Publishers Weekly
An overweight, complacent American woman on a 1986 visit to Beijing becomes fascinated with China and energetically embraces a new life in this affecting tale.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
“An exhilerating book... wonderful insights.... Ms. Barrett has captured a truly authentic Beijing.” (Amy Tan)
“The Middle Kingdom is engaging. Andrea Barrett writes with felicity, intelligence, and humor.” (Washington Post Book World)
“With The Middle Kingdom, Andrea Barrett further consolidates her position as one of our most thoughtful chroniclers of contemporary life.... The Middle Kingdom is another impressive milestone in what promises to be a long and fruitful literary journey by an accomplished American author.” (The Plain Dealer (Cleveland))
“The MIddle Kingdom proves again that Andrea Barrett is a writer of talent and promise.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
“An affecting novel about an American woman's self-discovery.... Barrett here re-creates not China itself but, more reasonably, her heroine's fascination with it, and she manages to infuse her characters, Grace especially, with a psychic energy and charm.” (Publishers Weekly)
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The story of Grace's trip to China forms the central and climactic plotline of Barrett's novel, but much of the story is told in flashbacks, taking the reader through Grace's disastrous first marriage, her transition from artist to lab assistant, and the resulting relationship with Professor Hoffmeier.
Barrett's descriptions are vivid and original, and the book in populated with an extensive cast of interesting supporting characters. In fact, some of the minor characters are interesting enough that I was left wanting more of a chance to get to know them.
The heroine herself can be frustrating at times. She gets obsessive about her weight, reacts to trying circumstances with bad decisions and binge eating, and dwells on her failings more than her triumphs. But she does have triumphs, and the story of her finding her own path is eventually a liberating one.
The story opens in the midst of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and then flashes back to 1986 and the acid rain conference in Beijing. I would have liked to see a brief return to the opening scenario at the end of the book. I definitely felt that there was more to Grace's story than what was told here.
The depictions of Chinese culture, politics, and language were all very strong, as was the author's knowledge of the study of ecology. These details, along with the vivid characters, paint an engaging picture that holds the reader's attention all the way through.
The first third of Andrea Barrett's Middle Kingdom sets Grace's story in the history of our time, in events we watched on CNN from around the world. Then Barrett, one of the most creative authors in the U.S. today, takes us through the decades of her protagonist's life, recalled in the delirium of her pneumonia. From her hippie marriage to a psychotic artist to her grad student days under Professor H we track her career as a second rate loser. Then, as his wife and lab assistant, she gains pounds for every bit of self-esteem she gives up. I would have been tempted to abandon her pathetic story had Andrea Barrett not already shown me Grace's strength in the opening pages of the novel. In the final third of Middle Kingdom the story returns to China, with Grace telling her husband she will remain in Beijing to work with Dr. Yu.
An aspect of Barrett's genius as an author is this capacity to bring us into the lives of characters we normally would walk away from. From her first novel, Lucid Dreams, she has enabled us to inhabit awkward and ungainly lives (perhaps not too unlike our own) with deep respect. She captures us with the quality of her words, page to page, and the quality of her compassion for her characters.
But she also holds our interest through her innovative approach to structure, each book flowing in a unique pattern. Middle Kingdom begins at the end of the story, flashes back through periods of Grace's life (all occurring in the delirium of her illness in Beijing), and then takes us again to the powerful ending. Lucid Stars' four sections trace an extended family's journey from the fifties to the end of the seventies. Each section focuses on a different character, with the chapters as episodes a few years apart. Forms of Water is also a family saga, but with the historic flashbacks occurring in the midst of the dramatic and amusing story of Uncle Brendan's flight from the nursing home.
A final characteristic of particular interest in Middle Kingdom -- and all of Barrett's work -- is her deep fascination with science and her ability to make it integral to her character's lives. Grace may have dropped out of graduate school, tired of living in her husband's shadow, but she is an accomplished researcher and spends her years in China as part of a team studying a lake's damaged ecosystem. Each of the stories in Ship Fever unfolds around the life of a scientist. Linnaeus, for instance, is old and entering Alzheimers but can still recall each researcher he sent into the field to gather specimens. A remarkable and moving story!
This review of one novel by Andrea Barrett is becoming a celebration of her collected works. I've tried to describe why I've given Middle Kingdom a five-star rating, and I've hardly touched upon the high quality of her prose itself. I'm now such a fan that I'd probably even give a high rating to Secret Harmonies, even though it is the one book by her I've not yet read.