Release Date: March 8th, 2016
Staid, responsible Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of ten sisters living in a small English market town in 1861. The girls' father is a plant hunter, usually off adventuring through the jungles of China.Disclaimer: I received an eARC from the publisher. This did not affect my review in any way, nor am I being compensated for this.
Then disaster strikes: Mr. Buchanan fails to collect an extremely rare and valuable orchid, meaning that he will be thrown into debtors' prison and the girls will be sent to the orphanage or the poorhouse. Elodie's father has one last chance to return to China, find the orchid, and save the family—and this time, thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate, Elodie is going with him. Elodie has never before left her village, but what starts as fear turns to wonder as she adapts to seafaring life aboard the tea clipper The Osprey, and later to the new sights, dangers, and romance of China.
But even if she can find the orchid, how can she find herself now that staid, responsible Elodie has seen how much the world has to offer?
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this except that I knew it was going to be an amazing feminist-y read. Ever since I read Waller's last book, A Mad, Wicked Folly, I wanted to read more of her works. I felt even more excited about this book after my video chat with her and Sofia. And when I saw that this was going to be set in China, I knew I had to read it.
I'm not even sure where to begin this review. Just like A Mad, Wicked Folly, the book followed a determined young woman--Elodie--through her life in England, where she feels underestimated and trapped. I loved seeing her transformation throughout the book as she leaves her sheltered home and takes matters into her own hands. If anything, I loved her even more than Vicky because I agreed with her actions more and it was easier to feel sympathetic to her/her situation. That being said, I didn't find the other characters as compelling. I thought the characters represented various walks of life and points of view which I really appreciated and loved. I loved Ching Lan's storyline, and it was interesting to see it from Elodie's point of view and from that time in history. At first I didn't really like Ching Lan but more because we were viewing her from Elodie's perspective, but as we learned more about her, her situation really struck me and very strongly shows cultural differences and how they impact our lives. And though I loved Alex, I don't know how I feel about his relationship with Elodie. It was pretty obvious and predictable and just didn't feel very authentic to me. I do think their relationship changed over time, and it became less of a thing, but it sat weirdly with me for a while.
I thought the parent-daughter relationships and sibling relationships were particularly interesting here, as well as the idea of a chosen family. I found these to be much more compelling, particularly showing Elodie's growth. She cares so much about her family and that never goes away, but she also learns that sometime we need to be selfish and put ourselves before our family members. She learns to be her own person outside of her family, but it's clear she doesn't care about her family any less because of it. The feminist message in this book is just fabulously done, and I think it was much clearer (and perhaps more explicitly stated) than in A Mad, Wicked Folly, but I just loved how this dealt with how culture plays such a big part in feminism and about intersectionality (and seeing supportive males).
I also really appreciated the two settings, England and China. Even though I'm Chinese (and Taiwanese), I've never visited the country, yet Waller perfectly captures the atmosphere of Chinese neighborhoods (but without the same Western lens we experience it here) and really captures the culture. I could picture all of the locations. It was just beautifully crafted.
However, I did have some qualms about the book. As I mentioned briefly earlier, I didn't really feel as connected to these characters. Though their stories were compelling, I wasn't pulled into them. In addition, there was a lot more build up before the actual trip to China than I was expecting. I suppose that it's necessary as it builds the backdrop for the second part of the book, but it really dragged for me. And even once we arrived in China, I didn't feel as though the pace picked up. Normally I'm okay with a character-driven, not high paced book, but without feeling the same pull to the characters, it made it a bit of an effort to keep reading the book. I know some people DNF'd the book, and I could understand why, but I'm glad I stuck with it until the end.
Overall, I enjoyed the book and thought the messages were much more developed than the author's previous novel, despite a more dragging plot. The setting was done very well and really captured the culture and atmosphere.