Author: Suzanne Joinson
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1920s / China / Missionaries / Cultural Differences / London / Parallel Plot Lines)
Publisher/Publication Date: Bloomsbury USA (6/4/2012)
Did I finish?: Sort of -- I started skipping sections to do so!
One-sentence summary: A British missionary in 1920s China and a modern Londoner have a common thread in this dual narrative novel.
Reading Challenges: E-books, Historical Fiction, NetGalley
Do I like the cover?: I adore the cover -- it so captures the bucolic ambiance of the the bicycling guide that the missionaries use, all polite and refined. It's delusional in the best way.
I'm reminded of...: Melissa Bank
First line: I unhappily report that even Bicycling for Ladies with hints as to the art of wheeling - advice to beginners - dress - care of the bicycle - mechanics - training - exercizes, etc. etc. cannot assist me in this current predicament: we find ourselves in a situation.
Does... this book win for best title of 2012?: YES. If not THE best, at least in the top ten.
Did... I contemplate taking up biking after this?: YES. Lackadaisical biking, of course, no mountains for me! I could kind of see myself on one of those old-fashioned bikes, pedaling slowly...and then my imagination runs out of energy.
Am... I desperately keen to read Joinson's next novel?: YES. Joinson's writing was lovely and I can't wait to see how she handles female pilots and inter-war London.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- the historical portion of this story is marvelous and must be read!
Why did I get this book?: The title and the cover -- I know, never judge blah blah -- but it's so pretty!
Review: I started this book on my evening commute home, more out of curiosity than any desire to dig in; when I lifted my head, I was at the end of my line, and nearly one hundred pages in. I was hooked -- sort of. In my flash judge-y way, I hadn't realized this was a dual narrative; I thought it was entirely a historical novel.
The story is split between two characters: Eva, a 1920s English missionary in Kashgar, China, and Frieda, a contemporary Londoner at the end of an affair. Eva and her sister Lizzie, freshly minted missionaries following the charismatic and commanding Millicent, end up in Kashgar, China, detained after Millicent assists in a birth that results in the mother's death. Millicent is enthralled with their circumstances and Lizzie keeps up with her photography, but Eva finds herself unlikely nursemaid to the orphaned infant, scared, worried, and overwhelmed. Her own project, writing a lady cyclist's guide to the East, doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
In contemporary London, freelance journalist Frieda meets Tayeb, a Yemeni man on the run from authorities. One night he sleeps in the hall of her building, leaving a beautiful drawing in his wake. When Frieda discovers she's inherited something, her pursuit of who -- and who her benefactress is -- connects her with Tayeb and her family's past.
In my opinion, Eva's story was marvelous. I loved her voice and her arc in the book: her doubts about Millicent, her doubts about her faith and missionary work, her concern for her increasingly dreamy-eyed sister, and her anxiety about the alarmingly foreign world she's in. I love 19th century travelogues and while this is 20th century, there's that wonderful (English) fish-out-of-water feel that I ate up. Frieda's story, however, was yawn-worthy and really should have been left out of the book -- or at least, plunked into another novel. She was having an affair with a married man, who was a total bore, and vaguely ignoring her free love parents. Her journalism work trotted her around the globe but she felt wildly pedestrian compared to Eva and her coterie. Even Tayeb and the mystery of Frieda's inheritance couldn't save her side of the story.
While this book might take best title for 2012, sadly, it just didn't totally win for me. Ultimately, this became a DNF as I got so sick of Frieda that I just started skipping her sections to remain in the portions with Eva. Eventually, Frieda's story connects with the one involving Eva's, and I liked that enough -- but not enough to go back and read Frieda's bits again.
I'd describe this book as slightly more chick-lit-y than hist-fic-y, but maybe that's because Frieda's sections felt fluffier than Eva's. A fun enough summer read -- might be fun for book clubs due to the differing voices -- and certainly pretty enough to carry on the train or show off at the beach!