Jennifer Cody Epstein,
The Painter from Shanghai
(Norton, 2008)

In The Painter from Shanghai, Jennifer Cody Epstein has written a meticulously researched novel about the life of Pan Yuliang, the post-impressionist painter. Exactly how faithful the book is to Yulaing's life, I can't say because, in an author's note, Epstein declares the book to be a work of the imagination that attempts to stay true to the broad strokes of Yulaing's life. The characters, events and places presented in the book, she says, are impressionistic portraits.

I'm emphasizing the author's note because when you read The Painter from Shanghai, your first impulse is to think that because the central character really lived, that you are reading biography. Epstein, however, has made an artistic choice to use her character as both a symbol and as a device to focus the book on the larger picture. She has Madame Pan move through the central events of Chinese life in the early to mid-20th century, so that she witnesses and participates in the great political upheavals and cultural changes that racked that country.

The central character is sold into prostitution by her opium-addicted uncle and spends seven years working in a brothel, an action that takes up the first third of the book and tells us much more than we ever thought we'd learn about life in an oriental whorehouse. After seven years, she leaves the house to become first the concubine and then the second (not second in a row, but second simultaneously) wife of a bureaucrat. Her feeling for art begins to grow, as does the novel's emphasis on the politics, revolutions and wars that occupied China at the time. She becomes one of the first important female painters in China, but revolution and the cultural tightening that accompanied the rise of Mao destroys her career, so finally she is forced to leave the country of her birth.

Epstein is aiming for an epic novel, one which uses her central character as a means of focusing on a period of history in the country and that intention is both one of the major strengths and the weaknesses of The Painter from Shanghai. The novel seems bloated, carrying too much weight, so that it moves ponderously, slowly, preventing us from ever getting truly caught up in Madame Pan's story.

Parts of the book are brilliant; individual scenes within it catch you up and make you feel you are living within the characters. But too much of the development is lost in the attempt to give the story an additional few layers of significance. There is a fine book sitting inside The Painter from Shanghai, a fine 250-page book inside a novel that is 400 pages long.

review by
Michael Scott Cain

13 September 2008

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