All The Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson takes place in 1930s Shanghai when a quiet young girl, Feng, finds herself living a life she wasn’t intended for. She is forced into an arranged marriage to the heir of the very wealthy Sang family, for which she is entirely unprepared. Her life as the wife of Xiong Fa is claustrophobic and intensely circumscribed, as she is barely allowed to leave the house and must serve and acommodate her in-law’s wishes at all times. All they want from her is a male heir, so she learns early on how to satisfy her husband, an experience she never learns to enjoy.

Feng quickly becomes an extremely bitter, angry woman, and pushes away everyone from her old life, including her parents. Even her maid, the one person who always looks out for Feng, is subject to her capricious moods and quick anger. Ultimately, Feng learns to succeed in the house and gains the respect, if not the affection, of her husband’s family. But she remains manipulative and haughty. Her anger is certainly understandable, but it doesn’t make Feng a particularly interesting character.

Toward the end of the book., Feng’s rash behavior leads to a tragic reversal of fortune, as she finds herself far from home and caught up in the Revolution and installation of Communist rule in China. This is really the first time that the author explored what was happening outside of Feng’s tiny little prison of a world. I wish that All the Flowers in Shanghai had been a bit broader in scope throughout the whole book, so that the events of the last 50 pages or so would have had more context. I understand that the author was trying to convey the limits of Feng’s world in the Sang household. But there was almost no mention of life outside the family, except for her few social outings. I would also have liked to see Feng either soften or evolve more throughout the book. Her redemption at the end came too late.

I did enjoy reading All the Flowers in Shanghai, despite its shortcomings. Jepson tells the story successfully from a female point of view, and sharply conveys the deep injustices women suffered in China during that period. But it is not a perfect book.

For another (yet remarkably consistent!) opinion, check out Swapna Krisha’s review of Äll the Flowers in Shanghai.

Hi there FTC! This was a review copy from HarperCollins.