February Flowers by Fan Wu

September 12, 2007 at 9:53 pm 5 comments

While I often discuss books on this blog, this is my first official Mother Talk book tour blog entry. I answered the call to review February Flowers, by first-time novelist Fan Wu, because it is about a friendship between women in Asia, a topic and setting that greatly interest me.

I enjoyed Wu’s easygoing prose, and I loved her glimpse into Chinese university life. But, I must admit, the book left me with an unsettled feeling.

I think that is, in a way, what Wu intended. Her descriptions of this central, young friendship will ring familiar to most women, regardless of ethnicity, at least in some ways. It is unequal; Ming (17) looks up to Yan (24) and is often mocked by her. It is consuming; Ming (bookish and shy, ever-pleasing her parents) longs for the excitement and worldliness Yan (streetwise and shunned in her hometown) offers her. And, while this aspect may not play into every female friendship to the extent it does here, it is sexually charged; Wu paints a clear picture of Ming’s attraction to Yan, and perhaps to women in general.

What unsettles me about the book is not the theme of lesbianism (please, I went to grad school in Madison for feminist studies) but more the feeling that Ming is ultimately a woman who forfeits her authentic self.

Many have called this a “coming-of-age” novel, but my read was that Ming never came of age. She never shed her adolescent fears and embraced her true passions to become a woman who felt comfortable in her own skin. It doesn’t matter if her passions grew as her love for books and music, for speaking her mind, or for relationships with women. It doesn’t matter if she is straight or gay or bi. What bothered me is that she is a character who refuses to really try, or engage, with any of it.

Wu’s voice, as Ming, is of a girl (and, later, woman) afraid of her own feelings. We get glimpses of Ming’s imaginative, poetic nature — as she describes to Yan walking through a pitch-black cotton field and conjuring up a blue sky and pink flowers so as not to be scared. We see Ming’s passion for playing the violin, as she is when she meets Yan on a remote dorm roof. We see her burgeoning sexuality and romantic longing, as she watches Yan prance around in heels, looks at forbidden pictures of naked women and starts to date men.

And, yet, the modern woman Ming becomes, described through Wu’s masterful first-person weaving, seems remote and cold-hearted. She never lets herself experience real passion — just a clung-to memory of a, let’s face it, dysfunctional teenage friendship/unrequited love.

The Chinese culture in this novel is important, and my cultural bias as an American woman reader should be called out. Ming’s parents and her culture, a struggle between conservative and progressive, influence her disconnect. But, Wu clearly shows us modern China, and pretty modern Chinese parents (her mother tells her not to expect everyone to approve of her life decisions).

I realize my ethnocentricity in believing the sky’s the limit for this young woman (coming out in China is something I can only imagine the complexity of), but I can’t help it — I’m bothered by the way Ming declines to claim her life. She views Yan as her only salvation, and does not realize that she can merely look within herself. She has many chances to come of age, to become her own woman, but, to risk spoiling the ending, she settles for less and we are not sure that she ever will take a real chance to be happy.

Perhaps she will change, and that may be Wu’s strategy in the book’s open conclusion — to leave hope for Ming. But, Ming grows into a woman who chooses to hide, to compartmentalize, who chooses self-protection over love (for others and for herself). She has created her own chains. Yan, or Ming’s fantasy of Yan, will not be able to unchain her; she must do it herself.

Perhaps the book’s brilliance is in how it left me with this unsettled angst and frustration with Ming. It clearly touched on some of my own issues and judgments. I spend much of my time reading books that validate living authentically and interconnectedly, and trying to do so in my own life, so this book offered me a view of the opposite. It was good for me to get some yang with my yin (pun intended), to see from another perspective (on many levels, personal, cultural, and otherwise) how one could take a different path and hold back.

The book actually relates very much to my blog’s theme of “having enough” because it, more than any other I’ve read in recent memory, illustrates so clearly that if we do not embrace who we are, what we love to do and who we want to be with, we will drift, dissatisfied and lonely (and fantasizing about “what ifs”) through our days.

So, while February Flowers did not blow me away with excitement, it did get under my skin, and that is a testament to Wu’s writing. Wu succeeded in making Ming real for me, as disappointed as I was with her choices as she grew older. So real, in fact, that I want to call her up before she enters the next unpublished scene, give her a good verbal slap in the face and say: Live, girl! This is not a dress rehearsal!

For more great woman-focused books and discussion like this, visit Mother Talk.

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Entry filed under: Books, Women.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. wordbones  |  September 13, 2007 at 4:48 am

    What a thoughtful and insightful review — wow!

    Reply
  • 2. Marjorie  |  September 13, 2007 at 4:51 am

    Thank you so much for writing such a well-thought-out review. It’s easy to use a big brush and paint broad swaths of bright color, and it’s refreshing to read something more carefully written. Just great!

    Reply
  • […] 12: Having Enough says “Wu succeeded in making Ming real for me, as disappointed as I was with her choices as […]

    Reply
  • 4. Chris Miller  |  October 24, 2007 at 12:57 am

    “Many have called this a “coming-of-age” novel, but my read was that Ming never came of age.”

    I agree completely — this is a sad story about a sad generation that like the two main characters in this story, have a hard time finding role models / mentors from the older generations.

    The final paragraph may appear upbeat: “I will talk with her like a woman, her equal , confidently, wisely, maturely etc”… but she’s talking about a woman whom she hasn’t really made a serious effort to ever meet again.

    Reply
  • […] Megan at Having Enough mentioned being frustrated with Ming, who she felt refused to be her own woman and make her own choices. I definitely see her point, but I read Ming more as figuring out (ever so slowly!) what she didn’t want, but as not yet sure what she did want. I think that rejecting some elements leaves room for others to flourish—but what do you think? Are negative choices as authentic as positive ones? […]

    Reply

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