Well, Secret of A Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip has a happy ending, sort of, but the rest of the novel deals with the trials and tribulations of the main character, Spring Swallow who experiences a life full of drama. Even the so called “good times” are fraught with bad behaviors by the people around her. It seems that Spring Swallow flees one disaster only to land in another – first from marriage to a ghost husband, then to protect herself from enemies of her revolutionary husband, and finally to escape the clutches of her nasty husband addicted to gambling and other evils. Interwoven throughout Spring Swallow’s travels in 1930’s China (from Soochow to Peking) is the story of Auntie Peony, who teaches her the fine art of embroidery, and her adopted sisters, Purple, Leilei, and Little Doll. Spring Swallow has a natural aptitude in the intricacies of Sooxiu embroidery, the finest in the world, and it sustains her throughout her many difficulties.
Although Secret of a Thosand Beauties is an easy read, Spring Swallow’s journey gets a little cumbersome as her thoughts on life are too often repeated. It is also wearying reading about her many troubles. Too many. The most interesting character is Auntie Peony. She is the true Secret of a Thousand Beauties. In her youth, Peony, the master embroiderer in the royal place, has a forbidden love affair with the emperor. Bits and pieces of her life are slowly revealed, but there are some unanswered questions left dangling for the reader to puzzle out on their own. How much better to have told the same story from her point of view, with the “adopted” daughters a subsidiary storyline. That is the novel I wanted to read.
However, I did enjoy the Chinese proverbs, symbolism, folklore, and cultural idiosyncrasies sprinkled throughout the book, as well as the background on the importance that embroidery played in Chinese culture.
An interesting but slightly flawed storyline, to which I give three stars.
I want to thank Kensington Books for allowing me to download this book for free in exchange for an unbiased review.