Customer Review

Reviewed in the United States on November 7, 2005
There are so many contradictions within this quirky memoir that it could only possibly be true.

This is a memoir of life right around the start of the 19th century. It recounts the adult life of Shen Fu, a man who appears to have been ordinary in the extreme. Although educated, he did not pass the literary tests of the civil service. At best, his career could have been a secretary under one of the successful examinees, but his times weren't always the best. His positions never lasted, and his business attempts failed. Often, he sold his possessions and his wife's down to the clothes on their backs (or less). He fell out with his family, in a time when filial duty was enforced by law, and became outcast in almost every sense.

But his life never wholly failed, either. Perhaps it was the glow of nostalgia, but his twenty-three years of marriage were always a joy to him, even when his wife's health failed, and even when she may have been the source of some of his problems. They had their times of poverty, but never to the point of starvation. He was honorable enough to quit a corrupt position when it offended his honor too deeply. He was devoted enough to heal the familial rifts. His joys and Yun's were simple - travel, each other, the beauty of the full moon, and maybe a little too much wine shared with happy company. Shen Fu and his devoted Yun never demanded much from their lives, and usually got enough to enjoy.

The text wanders. The first three chapters chart the ups and downs of the marriage to his beloved wife. She died early, from some frightening disease. Still, she and he accepted it stoically, or mostly did. The fourth chapter collects a few decades of moments together, the sights and sounds of travel. With his wife and after her, Shun Fu visited temples, sacred caves, and pleasure districts, reported in some drifting collage of personal history. Despite the "six" promised in the title, we have only four. It's probably better that way, according to the appendices.

I really think I would have liked Shun Fu. He was honest enough, loving enough, and devoted enough to his children. Even when his own situation deteriorated badly, he fostered his son as best he could and sheltered his daughter with people who could marry her well. He never wholly succeeded or failed, but muddled through the chances that appeared to him. He was no grand hero, nor villain, nor idle dreamer, nor driven workaholic. He was just a guy, living some guy's life pretty well. Maybe he dressed up his memories just a bit, but don't we all?

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