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A Thread of Sky Visits Contemporary China and America

August 29, 2010

A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei
published by Penguin Press HC, April 1, 2010

Irene’s three daughters were grown up; the youngest, Sophie, was about the graduate from high school, when her husband Bill walked out, “needing a break.” Irene said something when he left, words of bitterness and hurt, which she came to regret when Bill died in a tragic accident. These words drove a wedge between Irene and her daughters. Now, at 55, she finds herself alone, desperate to reconnect with her children.

Daughter of a Taiwanese feminist and revolutionary, who immigrated to America after fleeing civil war, Irene was raised to be an exceptional woman at all costs. Irene became a biologist, immersed in important research that might solve the riddle of Alzheimer’s Disease. Yet she was torn between her career and motherhood. Her mother, Lin Yulan, lives across the country. They are separated by a rift caused by Lin Yulan’s expectations of her daughter. Twenty years ago, at age 60, Lin Yulan left her chronically unfaithful husband, and she harbors deep secrets about what she suffered in China.

The legacy of needing to be an exceptional woman, beyond all else, filtered down to Irene’s daughters, all high achievers. Nora, now in her late 20s, is a successful financial trader. She overcame a professional subculture of sexism and racism to be respected by her male colleagues. She’s in a difficult relationship with her live-in boyfriend, terrified to compromise or commit to him. Kay, in her mid 20s, is living in deplorable conditions in a Chinese dormitory, determined to learn her ancestral language and reclaim her Chinese identity. She drifts among three different men, never settling into a real relationship, and tries to rescue Chinese prostitutes from sexual exploitation. Sophie just graduated from high school. A brilliant student and artist, she has won acceptance to Stanford. She struggles with her relationship with her mother, her attachment to her African American boyfriend, who seems to sincerely love her, and with an eating disorder.

On New Year’s Eve, Irene reaches out to her sister Susan. A professor and poet who “sees life in moments,” focusing on “life crystallized” and ignoring the narrative, the cause and effect, Susan is very different from her sister. Irene plans a trip for herself and her daughters, Susan, and Yu Lin. Ironically they find themselves in their ancestral country on a packaged tour, buying overpriced souvenirs and not understanding the language. There is a great deal of awkwardness, misunderstanding, and frustration among the six women. But in the end, they’ve achieved something — not reconciliation, but a bit more acceptance.

Deanna Fei’s narrative shifts among six points of view, speaking in the voice of each of these women. Her characters are well drawn, and she does a magnificent job of seeing the world through the eyes of women in three different generations. I was absorbed in the aspirations, fears of intimate commitments, and confusion navigated by gifted, ambitious women in their twenties, the hopes and losses of midlife, and old age, with a rich history but few people alive who were there with you to bear witness.

This story has many layers. It reflects both the prejudices toward and high expectations of Chinese Americans. In her review, Amy Finnerty of the New York Times, wrote: “It is to Deanna Fei’s credit that she so squarely and honestly takes on a misunderstood ill — the burden of the so-called model minority.” It explores Chinese history, including the legacies of the revolution and the tragic holocaust under Japanese occupation. This novel also looks at the complexity of women’s issues. Kay is inspired by her grandmother’s feminist revolutionary past. She scours personal ads, preparing to rescue Chinese women from exploitation.

“Handsome European male fluent in English and Chinese would like to meet Japanese and Korean girls. NO SPEAK ENGLISH? O.K. I LIKE YOU. WE HAPPY” … These women couldn’t understand how what seemed like romance, or at least mutual attraction, was shameless capitalization; or the historical context of Orientalism; or the subtext of those English ads — how, for starters, that “Handsome European male” preferred his Asian women inarticulate, if not voiceless; or how such presumptions coiled around people, until they no longer knew how their own identity had been constricted. (pp. 72-73)

Then she discovers the sexually “exploited” women she reaches out to don’t want to be rescued, and glimpses the reality that this issue is more complex than she had imagined. For these women, paradoxically, prostituting themselves offers an unprecedented kind of freedom.

Similarly, Deanna Wei captures the complexities of both traditional marriage and modern relationships and of the struggle between a woman’s career, and her drive to make a mark on the world, and her desire to be in a “safe” intimate relationship and raise children. She respects her readers enough not to suggest easy answers. And the characters she portrays — both male and female — are flawed, vulnerable, and vividly real.

Q & A with the Author: Adoption. Et cetera.

Read More Reviews: Largehearted Boy (includes the author’s music playlist for this novel); Book Addiction; Daisy’s Book Journal

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2010 7:48 pm

    Wow, this sounds like a really good book. A lot of characters and issues really flushed out. Thanks for the review!

  2. September 3, 2010 2:25 pm

    This book sounds very interesting. It seems the author takes on a side of Chinese Americans that I have not read before. I like that. Thanks for letting me know of this!

    • September 3, 2010 3:18 pm

      Rebecca — I hope you will read this book. I can’t wait to hear what you think. 🙂

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