Thursday, October 15, 2020

A Hundred Suns

Title:  A Hundred Suns
Author:  Karin Tanabe
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2020. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1250231477 / 978-1250231475

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The house of a hundred suns."

Favorite Quote:  "Brains are more effective than beauty. Only the world tries to make women forget it. They don't want us to be too smart ... They're scared that if they encourage it, we'll end up more intelligent than the men. With the secret being ... that we already are."

The house of a hundred suns is the central train station in Hanoi, Vietnam. The history underlying this book is the history of rubber plantations and Michelin tires and the history of the rise of communism in Vietnam. In the context of this history, the story is one of personal vendetta and revenge and a bit of a psychological thriller.

For the background and history, I find myself doing research as the history is not made entirely clear by the story. The French company Michelin has been around since the 1880s. Much of the rubber used in the manufacturing came from plantations in Vietnam. Originally, there were independent plantation owners. However, in a effort to streamline operations and manage cost and quality, the Michelins bought up and ran plantations. Terrible working conditions at these plantations led to the Vietnam labor movement and a communist led strike on the plantation in 1930. This uprising became the basis for the other uprisings to come.

The "present" time in this book begins in November, 1933 as Victor Michelin Lesage and his wife Jessie Lesage arrive in Vietnam to take over management of the Michelin holdings. Victor is a minor Michelin relation, and his hope is to prove himself in Vietnam and return triumphant with entry into the inner circle in France. Jessie is an American by birth but has reinvented herself in Paris. With each of them come the secrets of their pasts. Jessie is the central character to this story. It is through her eyes that we see Vietnam and the Michelin business there.

The Lesage with their young daughter Lucie take over the household, including the staff, of the prior managers. The main social life of the French in Hanoi occurs around the club. Here, Jessie meets Marcelle, who is the other voice of this book.

There is a lot going on this book. The lush tropical setting. The political climate in Vietnam at the time. Jessie's secrets and back story. Marcelle's secrets and back story. Virginia, New York, Paris, Hanoi. Communism. Colonialisms. Love stories. Marriage. Adultery. Revenge. I do wish the history of colonialism, the conditions on the plantations, and even the politics had been a more integral part of this story. After a while, the personal back stories made for slow going. The conflict is primarily between two manipulative women in privileged circumstances. Unfortunately, I find myself not connecting to either one or even finding them likable and thus to the story.

The history I learn I find in the outside sources I go to based on the names and places in the book. I wanted more in the book. From my research, it seems that this history is part of the volatile situation that ultimately led to the Vietnam War, the impacts of which still linger. For a book in this setting, I expected more of that history.

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

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