Friday, February 26, 2016

Empress Orchid

Title:  Empress Orchid
Author:  Anchee Min
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2004. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0618068872 / 978-0618068876

Book Source:  I read this book as this month's selection for my local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "The truth is that I have never been the mastermind of anything."

Favorite Quote:  "We were capable of surviving battles, external as well as internal. We were meant to survive because of our minds' ability to reason, our ability to live with frustration in order to maintain our virtue. We wore smiling masks while dying inside. I was doomed when I realized that my talent was not to rule but to feel. Such a talent enriched my life, but at the same time destroyed every moment of peace I had gained."

Empress Dowager Cixi - rather an impressive name for a young country girl who starts life as Orchid and who is reduced to poverty by the death of her father. History agrees on the facts. The Empress ruled China for forty seven years. Historians disagree on her role in history. Some characterize her as a despot while others see her role more positively as a reformer.

This book, however, is about none of that. This book is not about the Empress Dowager. It is about the young girl who rises to that role and her journey from poverty to empress.

The book is very insular, focusing only on the life of those within the Forbidden City. The walls are very definitive and very clear. At the same time, the book provides glimmers of the world forces that batter at those walls. Whether it is the residents' longing for family beyond those walls or the threat of foreign powers to the dynasty within, the sense of the walls closing in is present throughout the book.

The first half of the book is about life in the Forbidden City. It is about the sights and sounds and the elaborate social structure. "Imperial life was about nothing but elaborate detail." The second half of the book, although still centered on the same characters, is about the politics of China and the struggle for power. It is about alliances, maneuvers, and counter maneuvers.

The first half of the book is about a young woman searching for a better life. It is about a girl who seemingly gets the opportunity to live a dream only to find that the dream has tarnished edges and a dark side. The second half of the book is about a mother and a savvy politician, who seeks to protect her child and his heritage. I am not entirely sure how an innocent, not very educated young girl turns into a woman who understand negotiations and treaties. The book does not explain how that transition and education happens, but it does happen.

This book in part reads like a history and biography; at the same time, the story rivals that of any soap opera. I cannot say how accurate the history is, but the story engages and entertains. I want to know what happens next.  One warning, this book does have a sequel titled The Last Empress. As such, the ending to this book does leave the story of the Empress in the middle. Am I intrigued enough to read the second book? I don't know yet.

At the heart of all these cross-sections is Orchid itself. The book begins at the end of a lifetime. "For half a century, I participated in the elaborate etiquette of the court in all its meticulous detail." Then, it goes back to the beginning when Orchid and her family first come to Peking. Told as a first person narrative, the book submerges the reader into her world and her perspective. As such, the story appears as viewed through the lens of a camera - Orchid's eyes. What is beyond the frame - beyond her perspective - remains beyond the reader. History, biography, and all the makings of a soap opera surround Orchid and come together in an entertaining story.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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