This is a book about a painter. And you know what isn’t in it? Pictures! Here are some paintings by Pan Yuliang:
You may have noticed that the book cover is pretty generic and recycled
. This is especially odd given that the subject of the book painted so many self-portraits:
Maybe the people who own the rights to all these portraits don't approve of the book. Anyway, as you may have started to gather from the above, Pan Yuliang was controversial for her nude paintings, including ones in which she used herself as a model.
Okay, now what about the book? One word: frustrating!
On a technical level, this isn’t a bad novel, and Pan Yuliang had an interesting life; the book is very readable. But in its characterization, its attempt to reveal the human being behind the biographical facts and bring a historical figure to life, it falls short. Not irredeemably so, if you're looking for a light read, but it's all the more frustrating for the unrealized potential.
You probably haven’t heard of Pan Yuliang, and it might surprise you to learn that she’s also been the subject of a movie and a TV drama. Why so many stories about her? That’s easy: because she was sold into prostitution at 14. Her three years in a brothel are apparently what first drew Epstein to this story as well. And the predictable comparisons to Memoirs of a Geisha are apt; although only about 100 pages deal directly with this part of Yuliang’s life, it feels like more, as this section gets the most heightened focus and detail. Past that section and her immediate recovery, the book speeds up quite a bit; Yuliang had a fairly long life (1899-1977), but by the time she turns 20, we’re already 2/3 of the way through the book.
(Note: there may be SPOILERS below. This isn’t a book that depends on unpredictability--the prologue, set in 1957, gives away a lot--but you’ve been warned.)
The Painter from Shanghai is fairly interesting and competently written. Once it gets past the (admittedly, less fluffy) Memoirs of a Geisha retread, Yuliang’s life began to interest me more: her romance is touching, her time as a starving artist in Paris fascinating (and breezed through all too quickly), and her struggle for acceptance as a western-style painter of nude portraits among the increasingly conservative and inward-looking art society of China of the 1930s has a lot of potential. But the book skips more and more time as it goes--we don’t see a single scene of Yuliang's four years in Italy--and tends to develop only those relationships that culminate in sex; platonic friends and colleagues who apparently played key roles in Yuliang’s life appear in a scene or two at best. Then, save for the prologue, it ends with her leaving China for good in 1937; surely living through WWII in France was worth a chapter or two? Isn't her becoming a teacher at the École des Beaux Arts, where she was initially rejected as a foreign student, worth a mention in a book about her life?
Meanwhile, the frustrating thing about the character development is that there are flashes of character in which Yuliang seems like a real woman rather than a Generic Female Protagonist.... but these are all too brief. Her good-but-imperfect husband, too, has a lot of potential that’s not entirely realized. Minor characters range from adequate but forgettable to the cartoonishly malicious first wife.
And there are some problems with the presentation: a sloppy editing job, and the lack of an author’s note explaining which elements are real and which fictional. Epstein does include a bibliography, but how, for instance, [b:The Rape of Nanking|95784|The Rape of Nanking|Iris Chang|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348687411s/95784.jpg|31912], dealing with an event that occurred after Yuliang’s departure and the end of the book, informed this story, I have no idea. I care far less about her background reading than about how much of the story was factual and which parts were invented.
And now I've complained a lot about this book--not because it's irredeemably awful, but because while it's interesting and competently written, it was ultimately unsatisfying. For the most part, it's a good example of why I generally opt for historical fiction starring fictional characters--it's very difficult to make a real-life historical figure come to life on the page; that person's choices have already been made for the author, who can only guess at what she might have thought and felt. This book, while it came close, left too much distance; the characterization ultimately just wasn't deep enough, and focused too much on Yuliang's sex life and too little on everything else. If you're looking for a light read, it might work for you. But for me, it was... average.