An entire generation of romantic novels, with elements of the thriller and historical fiction, are on the market and offer interesting reading. I’ve just finished reading Song of the Jade Lily by Kristy Manning. It’s a worthwhile read. At times it’s compelling. But most of all it has been well-researched, and educates even one who has studied history for years in a little-known chapter of World War II.
The book tells the story of a young girl who is part of a Jewish family fleeing Germany in 1937, leaving behind her brother killed on Crystal Nacht by the new proto-Nazi storm troops.
We learn that thousands of Jews fled Hitler’s Germany to find refuge in Shanghai, an international city at that time, which welcomed them with relief agencies, housing, food and employment. Who knew that? I didn’t.
The story moves effectively through twists and turns involving the daughter Romy and her new friend Li, bonded by chance and love, who must soon face the Japanese invasion of China and frightful and dangerous occupation of Shanghai. Family members come alive and the Chinese-French-American culture is colorfully portrayed, elegant cocktail lounges, movies and all.
Romy and the man she finds to love eventually escape to Australia. Told alternately are segments of the adoption of their Chinese granddaughter with plot complications that are interesting and satisfactorily resolved in the end.
But I have said this was a formulaic novel? What do I mean by that?
This is a new class of novels which will have certain characteristic devices in their plots that today’s writers believe are what readers want (and they are probably right—at least until they tire of the repetition). Exotic setting in places that are little known in history or in our contemporary world, defiant and clever heroines (usually), tons of background scenery to bring the past scene to life, buildings, landscapes, street scenes complete with the exact garbage in the gutter.
But more importantly, it seems, is—lots of food, especially in restaurants. All the readers, these authors believe, love to hear about the dishes served in elegant or tucked-away cafes or at home in detail. In this book it’s Chinese cookery. Spices: ginger, nutmeg, anise, sunflower seeds, cardamom—on and on. Six types of noodles in their slurpy deliciousness. Broths, chicken, pork, two types of fish broth. And the names are quite specific, exotic, unusual.
Dress and clothing styles, described as if for Vogue magazine with French-sounding names. “She came down the stairs in a floor-length, cream satinette gown with a six-inch Parisian slit in its left side.” Same detail for the living rooms. “His eyes took in the Art Deco, quarry glass coffee table on deep mahogany, curve-legged, lion leg pedestals.”
Why all these details obviously pitched to the reader’s senses? It’s the formula, taught I think in the creative writing classes in universities who have recently begun MFA programs—Master of Fine Arts. One may learn there how to write—at least how to create platefuls of reading food served up with yummy sensual details.
In spite of this contrived feeling of the settings of these MFA-taught plots, they are redeemed by another part taught in the classes: how to significantly research the background history and scenery of the chosen time.
I did not know anything of the Jewish flight to, and acceptance by, Shanghai at the start of World War II. This author did her job; that historical story carries the entire plot and shifting scenery for the senses along. As usual, history itself is stranger than fiction, stronger than even a richly contrived, somewhat overdone story. That’s what makes this, and other new novels like it, successful.
Nancy Baxter. Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing