Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Empress Orchid (novel)
Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
The book opens with the title character at seventeen years old, left in poverty with her mother, sister and brother after the death of their father, a political figure in nineteenth century China. Orchid is given a chance to interview to become an Imperial Concubine, as the current Emperor is looking for mates to produce an heir to the throne. After being selected as an Imperial Concubine, she is given the rank of Fourth Wife and ends up producing the Emperor's only male heir (who will become "The Last Emporer"). The Emperor dies when his son is only five years old, amid much political and social unrest in China, and Orchid manages to eventually become the most powerful woman in China, although the book doesn't take the reader that far.
Based on actual history and people, this is a fictionalized, first-person, and sympathetic account of Empress Dowager Cixi's early life in the Forbidden City. Although rich in details pertaining to customs, beliefs, landscape and history, I found that the story tended to drag for long periods. The characters all seemed shallow, and it was difficult to relate or feel sympathetic to any of them. The author tends to use some verbage which I think is probably historically incorrect (did anyone really say "potty" back in the mid-1800s, or even "retarded"?), which I found irritating. Without spoiling anything, the story ends with a weird surprise regarding Empress Orchid's sister, which is never developed or explained, and, of course, the predictable love interest, which I don't know is historically accurate or just part of the fiction of the novel, but seemed unlikely to me. It does show a fascinating glimpse of the lives of concubines and eunuchs (eunuchs: an excellent example of the totally effed-up things we humans do to one another), and life during the Second Opium War.
I think this book might appeal more to someone especially interested in Chinese history. I read it because it's the current selection for my book club; I was glad to finally be done with it.