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A Thread of Sky: A Novel Hardcover – April 1, 2010
From Publishers Weekly
When Irene Shen's husband of 30 years walks out on her, she says, Good riddance, only to learn hours later that he's been killed in a car accident. Stunned by the chain of events and dreading her imminent empty-nester status, Irene concocts a plan to strengthen blood ties through a family tour of China. But Irene's 80-year-old mother, Lin Yulan, in her youth a feminist revolutionary during the Chinese civil war, balks at returning to China, and Irene's three daughters—Nora, a successful bond trader; Kay, a social activist; and Sophie, a talented artist—are distracted by their own troubles. The characters are sympathetic and draw the reader easily into their tangled lives, but despite Fei's obvious talent, this debut has the feel of M.F.A. fiction. The hoary dictum write what you know hovers above every page of this novel. The story unfurls smoothly, yet never really touches the heart. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Sudden widowhood compels Irene Shen to try to reconnect with her three daughters: Nora, who has a successful Wall Street career; Kay, who is in Beijing studying Chinese; and Sophie, who is on her way to college. She signs them up for a two-week package tour of China that will take in all the must sees. Joining them are Irene’s sister Susan, a poet living in Hong Kong, and their 80-year-old mother, Lin Yulan. For Irene’s thoroughly Americanized daughters, the trip turns out to be less a chance to discover their Chinese roots than to come to terms with complications in their own lives. For Lin Yulan, who was a fervent revolutionary and feminist, it is a not necessarily welcome journey into her own past. Although the women don’t really experience much of China as they are hustled from one tourist site and related shopping venue to the next, they all achieve a deeper understanding of themselves and one another. Fei stakes a claim in Amy Tan territory with this satisfying tale. --Mary Ellen Quinn
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When Irene married, she was at the height of her career, a genetic research scientist working for a firm which was seeking a cure for Alzheimers Disease. Irene initially had outstanding results and felt she was closing in on discovering the cause of this very serious chronic illness but then without warning, her mice died of unknown causes. No one who took over her research (after she took a maternity leave of absence with the birth of her first daughter) could duplicate her results, minus the dead mice, of course. After that point, Irene dedicated her self to becoming a successful mother, she put forth the same effort and energy into motherhood that she did into nearly everything else in her life - she aimed to succeed, to become the best. She decided to celebrate special events and holidays something not done in her past, to create memories, traditions in her family, which now included three daughters and a husband. Irene had grown up in China where the only birthday celebrated was her brother's, when her mother made longevity noodles. Irene embraced American customs and traditions with a passion. She created a coccoon of safety and love for her family but the sudden death of her husband of thirty years changed everything in her life. Irene felt her life unraveling completely. Two of her daughters were adults and the third nearly so, essentially they no longer relied on her. Irene definitely felt alone. Then she got the bright idea of taking a tour to China with her three daughters, her only sister and her mother. Taking a trip together was something they never did before. This trip gave Irene focus and promised a closeness she wish she had developed much earlier in life with all of them. Due to the death of their dad, her three daughters reluctantly agreed to go on the trip. Little did they imagine how it would alter their perspective on the meaning of family, love and provide an understanding of their ancient Chinese roots. It provided a lasting and positive impact on their lives which they could never have otherwise achieved. All three generations of women in Irene's family developed a bond they never expected to happen! Most of them joined this tour reluctantly. Even her sister Susan, who was not thrilled with the idea either, had come face to face with a personal nemesis of the past, with which she needed to make peace.
Irene's eldest daughter, Nora had become a successful Wall Street broker, one of the few females to break into this traditional male role. However, unknown to anyone in the family, she had problems with committment to her boyfriend Jesse. Everyone naturally thought Jesse was the problem, but in fact, he had asked Nora to marry him several times and she delayed her response, being satisified to leave things as they were, ie. living together. Nora had a morbid feared he would cheat on her, like his father had done to his mother. In China, Nora found herself in a difficult predicament, an unexpected event occured, something for which she was totally unprepared. To her amazement, when her personal predicament became known to her family, she was embraced with their love and support, which seemed unimaginable to her before opening up to them. Irene's second daughter, Kay, went to live in China after graduating from college. She wanted to explore her laojia, ancestral homeland, to get a feel for her roots. She was studying in China and had a passion for women's rights. She also strung along several male friends without getting personally involved with any of them. She had not known what it was to fall in love and give of herself completely, that is, until she met Byron, another Chinese American passenger on this tour. Sophie, Irene's youngest daughter, was destined to be the third valedictorian in the family. She was completing applications for college, when her mother brought up the idea of a tour to China. Sophie had a hidden secret which she had accidentallyy revealed only to her boyfriend. To her embarrassment and eventual relief, her secret problem would become known to her whole family who would help her deal with it and conquer it. Lastly, Irene's mother, Lin Yulan, who was an enigma to both of her adult daughters as well as to her three granddaughters, turned out to have a hidden past which awed the family: they learned grandma had been a revolutinonary working for the Nationalst Chinese and for women's rights. They all developed a new respect for her. Ma, as she was called, lived in California with Lou, her eldest and only son. She had not spoken to her husband, who remained in China, for over 15 years, no one knew or understood why. It was believed she got fed up with his womanizing outside of marriage but that was not the real reason. As the story ends, the reader is privileged to learn the truth. The only conflict I have reading this novel is why the author does not let the family learn of Grandma's reasons for breaking off relations with her husband. Perhaps, it should remain unknown because in reality, there are many unrevealed family secrets that die with those who are buried, on the other hand, for this author ir provides material for two new books, a prequel and a sequel on this family, and one to include this subject. I hope the author reads my review and takes up this suggestion! This book is thoroughly enjoyable. It is well worth learning what fateful event occurred between Grandpa and Grandma which could never be forgotten or forgiven. The reader will be surprised what an interestng twist the author managed to weave into this magnificent novel. Erika Borsos [pepper flower]
I expect her relatives will be quick to agree as Fei's well-drawn characters - strong women all - are not only flawed, but cranky, querulous and generally dissatisfied with their lot. Except the grandmother, turning 80, a former nationalist revolutionary whose life of struggle, glory and tragedy has settled into a peaceful old age in California near her son.
"In her own home Lin Yulan was strong, self-sufficient, active, autonomous. On this tour she had to just keep up. And she could have, if not for her failing body. Aching joints, blistering feet, diarrhea - such were the afflictions finally dragging her down.
Meanwhile, her daughters and granddaughters complained, heaved loud sighs, cursed at mosquitoes - one bane she'd outlasted. Mosquitoes, like men, prefer younger, softer flesh - eating tofu, as the saying goes."
Their trip to their China is the mother's idea (Lin Yulan's daughter). Alone at New Year's, five months widowed, her three daughters scattered, Irene's loneliness makes her desperate. She last saw her daughters together at their father's funeral. He had died the day he left her, having fallen asleep at the wheel of his car. Irene believes the girls blame her. The day he left, she slammed the door on him, saying " `Good riddance,' " words she has regretted ever since.
Irene devoted her life - giving up a brilliant career in genetics - to her daughters. Each was valedictorian of her class; each went on to a prestigious university. Nora, the eldest, excels in a man's world on Wall Street. Kay, a social activist, is in China, trying to get in touch with her roots and save Chinese prostitutes. Sophie, the youngest, will be off to college at summer's end and can't wait.
Gorgeous and brilliant, each girl is unhappy. Fei's writing is precise and exquisite, but she fails to let these girls redeem themselves with a sense of humor or moments of reflection at their immense good fortune.
Nora is engaged, but unable to name a wedding date, consumed by fears of betrayal - which are finally fulfilled. Kay keeps three very different men at bay, unable to choose or let them go, and Sophie, less willowy than her sisters, hates her body and indulges in bulimia.
Irene's sister, Susan, a poet, married late in life. "Susan had said, as if it was a lesson learned, Nobody wants to die alone."
Lin Yulan left her husband to come to America. They were nationalists - heroes during WWII who were forced to flee to Taiwan when the communists took over. He was a philanderer and she has cut him out of her life entirely, although her granddaughters, particularly Kay, who has met him, hope for a reunion. As does the old man, apparently. He plans to come to Hong Kong to meet them after the tour.
The novel's point of view roves from woman to woman, each with her secrets, her inner fears and doubts, her struggle to keep the proper image of herself in place even for family.
The trip itself is rather appalling: a captive group bussed and rushed from place to place, seeing a lot more of official souvenir shops than Chinese "must-sees." They are taken advantage of at every opportunity and even Irene and Susan, who speak the language and connect with some of the people, find themselves shrewdly, cynically, manipulated.
Secrets are revealed along the way, but one secret is much greater than all of them and helps put things in perspective. The women reach varying degrees of epiphany, a difficult journey for each. No one gets everything they want, but each finds an unexpected strength in vulnerability and family bonds.
Fei is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a recipient of several academic grants and it shows. The characters are beautifully drawn, every sentence is well crafted and the pace is measured. Fei is in control of her art and while some readers may wish she had taken herself just a tad less seriously, most will find this well-shaped story satisfying and its prose a pleasure to savor.
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Once I started reading it I could not stop. The story and characters are well developed.Read more