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Originally published Saturday, April 10, 2010 at 7:04 PM

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Book review

'Pearl of China': Anchee Min's version of the life of Pearl S. Buck

A review of Anchee Min's novel "Pearl of China," based on the life of Pearl S. Buck. The book is a vehicle for the author's retelling of her own story. Min reads Thursday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. at its new Capitol Hill location.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Anchee Min

The author of "Pearl of China" will read at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle. Free (206-624-6600; www.elliottbaybook.com).

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'Pearl of China'

by Anchee Min

Bloomsbury, 278 pp., $24

Anchee Min has planted her authorial flag firmly in the land of Chinese Women of Importance, with mixed results.

Her best book was "Red Azalea," a memoir of her experiences in Mao's China during the Cultural Revolution. "Becoming Madame Mao" was a treatment of the life of that formidable woman; ""Empress Orchid" and "The Last Empress" dealt with the life of Empress Tzu Hsi.

Both "Empress" novels were rich with lore and the history of the Boxer Rebellion — the opulence of palace life contrasted with the deprivation, degradation and suffering of the Chinese peasants.

Now, Min is back again with the same story; this time its centerpiece is Pearl S. Buck. Min is nothing if not didactic, lecturing to the point of hectoring the reader.

This novel is Min's expiation for having denounced Pearl S. Buck when Min was in Madame Mao's theater group during the Cultural Revolution. Min has, understandably, a full complement of anger against those brainwashed years.

She has often entered the disclaimer that her novelizations of Chinese women's lives ought not to be taken as pure fact. Her writing is meant to "rehabilitate" crucial female figures in Chinese history.

This approach can be off-putting for the average reader, such as this one, who would like to know what to take seriously and what to write off as a rant.

Fortunately, since Pearl Buck was an American, we have many other sources by which to know her life. Born in 1892, she was the child of Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, Presbyterian missionaries. Her affinities were Chinese; her understanding of the Chinese language, culture and belief systems are well known.

She won a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for her classic novel "The Good Earth," the poignant and accurate story of the sad lives of Chinese peasants. Madame Mao refused to grant her a visa to visit China in 1972 with President Nixon, naming her an "enemy of the people."

The story that Min tells is of Willow Yee, age-mate of Pearl in Chin-kiang (Zhenjiang), where Pearl's father tries to convert the Chinese. Starvation makes "rice Christians" of some of them, and Willow's father, striving to support his family, assists Absalom in any way he can.

Pearl and Willow both have ugly first marriages and fall for the same man, a famous poet, who falls in love with Pearl, much to Willow's disappointment. Pearl is still married, as is the poet, and the liaison ends when the poet is killed in an airplane crash.

Both women eventually remarry. Pearl, who must leave China during the Boxer Rebellion, attends college in America and eventually achieves international fame as an author.

Willow, refusing to denounce her American friend, is imprisoned, tortured, starved, set to cleaning sewers; the reader hopes that this is all expiation enough.

In one particularly puzzling episode, Willow is busy in the sewers, starved and filthy, when she suddenly buys a railway ticket to visit her husband in prison. Why did she go back to her terrible life? There are several such holes in the narrative.

Where are the editors? Other books about Pearl S. Buck are more satisfying. This one seems to be about Anchee Min — again.

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