Review: Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip

secret-of-a-thousand-beauties“Set against the vibrant and intrigue-laden backdrop of 1930s China, Mingmei Yip’s enthralling novel explores one woman’s defiant pursuit of independence.

Spring Swallow was promised in marriage while still in her mother’s belly. When the groom dies before a wedding can take place, seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow is ordered to become a ghost bride to appease his spirit. Under her in-laws’ protection, she will be little more than a servant, unable to know real love or bear children. Refusing to accept her fate as a “bad-luck woman,” Spring Swallow flees on her wedding day.

In the city of Soochow, Spring Swallow joins a community of renowned embroiderers. The women work for Aunty Peony, whose exquisite stitching once earned her the Emperor’s love. But when Aunty Peony agrees to replicate a famous painting–a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete–betrayal and jealousy emerges within the group. Spring Swallow becomes entangled in each woman’s story of heartbreak, even while she embarks on a dangerous affair with a young revolutionary. On a journey that leads from the remote hillsides around Soochow to cosmopolitan Peking, Spring Swallow draws on the secret techniques learned from Aunty Peony and her own indomitable strength, determined to forge a life that is truly her own.” – Publisher Summary

Seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow has been trapped in a vow made by her late mother to marry a man who died while still in his mother’s womb. In 1930’s China, this feudal tradition of ghost marriages is still very much a reality for unfortunate young women such as herself.

“‘The white bird symbolizes the purity of your and Wang Xing’s union. The red symbolizes the virginal blood on your marital bed’

Right now my virginal blood was boiling inside all my arteries. What I’d like to do now was slit that bird’s neck so he’d bleed to death and end my bloody nightmare.”

Unfortunately, Spring Swallow’s nightmare is only about to begin. Following the marriage ceremony, she cleverly escapes into the hills and makes her way into nearby Soochow where she is brought into the home of a group of women embroiderers. Aunty Peony is the women’s teacher, a master embroiderer, and a woman of many secrets. The lessons Spring Swallow learns from Aunty Peony teach her not only to become a skilled embroiderer but also about how to survive in life. Soon, however, secrets, jealousy, and betrayal break up the home Aunty Peony has built and Spring Swallow must forge ahead into the unforgiving world to try to make a life for herself.

While Spring Swallow begins her journey an innocent, she quickly matures as she meets with the deceit, betrayals, loss, and abandonment that come across her path. Yet something is alight within her that keeps her fighting to survive, to make a better life for herself and her young charge. Spring Swallow learns well that happiness is fleeting and that often sacrifices must be made to allow us a better fate.

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is a bittersweet tale chronicling Spring Swallow’s journey from an abused village girl to an independent woman. Along the way she will fall in love, gain and lose three husbands, and finally find a place she can call home. The writing here was somewhat simplistic and character development could have been more thorough. I felt there were some holes in the plot that left me with unanswered questions – of course, I can’t tell you what those are without some major spoilers. Sorry, y’all. In all, Secret of a Thousand Beauties is an easy read that allows a gentle introduction into the atmosphere of 1930’s China. If you’re looking for something light to read while hanging out with the family this Thanksgiving weekend, this may be your book.

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip. Read it today!

2.5 stars

Source: Kensington Books {via NetGalley}

 

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