This is a set of short stories by Chinese writer Yiyun Li. I'd seen it mentioned a long while ago and thought it sounded appealing. Then Eva of A Striped Armchair gave it a rave review and I knew I'd have to take a look!
I like short stories, even if I don't read them as often as I read other forms of fiction. This collection was wonderful: no one story overwhelmed the others, or seemed pale in comparison to the others. The opening story, "Kindness", was long and in-depth. It told the story of a woman who is fairly unconnected to those around her, unhappy in a passive way. She is looking back on her experience training in the Red Army with other young women, at a time when they were all conscripts. The subtle clues to relationships and individual differences were outstanding; in a time when everyone was supposed to be identical comrades Yiyun Li is able to create an atmosphere of individuality revealed in small, particular moments.
In many of the stories, older women feature prominently. They are reviewing their lives, or wondering what went wrong, how they've missed out somehow. But the characters are all different people, despite their commonalities. There is no one character that always seems to be speaking for the author. I really admired her skill at creating settings that were alive, that seemed to be the natural place for each character to exist in. Most of the stories were set in China, but a few had American elements as well, and one of these ended up being a favourite for me. By chance, it's the title story, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl", a phrase denoting an equally handsome married couple.
This is a tale of a older woman, a former professor, who matchmakes for her 44 year old son. He's been in America for many years and has decided to return to China, where he moves in with his mother and tries to decide what to do next. As the story progresses, it's revealed that he is gay, but he still goes along with his mother's decision that he should marry a former student of hers. The student is herself a middle-aged woman, who has a strong affection for the professor. The three of them will live with this new configuration, but not necessarily happily ever after:
They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.This kind of calm, assured writing which never promises that things will be perfect is found throughout the collection. I enjoyed this read and all of the varied characters introduced to us. The Chinese setting was matter-of-fact and not "exoticized", as Eva mentions as well. Very rewarding read and I know I'll be looking for more by this author.