Even before I turned the first page, I was already in love with this novel. As a book blogger, I must have seen one or two World War II novels with each promo email from a publisher. And I like them well enough; I enjoy historical fiction, and losing myself in a different place and time. Still, when this caught my eye in the Thomas Allen catalogue, my immediate thought was: finally.
In the midst of shelves full of World War II stories about white people in Europe and North America, finally, here’s one set in China. Finally, here’s one that stars a Chinese woman instead of a white one with blond hair and blue eyes. Finally, here’s one that talks about the Japanese occupation of China, and the intra-Asian racism and cruelty during the war, alongside the horrors of the Nazi regime.
Finally, here’s a World War II novel that talks about that period of history in my part of the world. The publisher’s choice of cover art is, to me, just as powerful. I’ve seen dozens of World War II novels with the brave heroine standing in the centre, her back turned to the viewer. But I can’t remember the last one I’ve seen where the woman wasn’t white or blond. Covers of Asian historical novels published in North America seem to have a certain aesthetic: East Asian women with partially concealed faces, pastel-coloured flower petals, possibly some soft lighting. With this cover, the book seems to declare that it’s not so much an “Asian historical novel” as it is a “World War II” novel, that has an Asian lead and an Asian setting. It’s a powerful, long overdue, message, and one I hope to see a lot more of.
The Last Rose of Shanghai is about the forbidden love between Aiyi Shao, a wealthy heiress, nightclub owner, and business mogul in Shanghai, and Ernest Reismann, a penniless Jewish refugee from Germany, whom Aiyi hires to play the piano at her club. The romance between them is sweet: I love how much they care for — and take care of — each other. And while the obstacles between them did get a bit much towards the end (a scene featuring a tank stretched the limits of even my suspension of disbelief), I do like how the core reasons they couldn’t be together were very true to their characters’ unique circumstances.
For example, there’s the usual barrier of Aiyi being engaged to another man. But more important than that is the fact that Ernest is also on the run from Japanese soldiers, who suspect him of killing one of their own, and the powerful Japanese commander has threatened to shut down Aiyi’s beloved nightclub unless she turns him in. Thus, Aiyi’s motivation for staying away from Ernest has only a bit to do with the usual barriers of family honour and duty, and much more to do with who she is as a person who values her financial independence, and takes great pride in what she has accomplished with her night club.
And from Ernest’s perspective, there’s all the usual stuff about how he can’t really offer Aiyi much in terms of a stable future, but even more central to his character is his devotion to his younger sister, and his desire to give her a good life despite their current circumstances. His relationships with Aiyi and with his sister come to a head in a single, tragic moment, and the resulting rift between him and Aiyi afterwards feels both heartbreaking and totally understandable.
In fact, I’d say that it’s Aiyi and Ernest’s own story arcs that really make the novel shine, even more than the romance between them. The love story aspect began to feel a bit episodic after a while, when just as things seem headed for a happy resolution, something new happens that keeps them apart again. After a while, the obstacles themselves began to feel a bit convenient, like a TV writer stretching out the story over an entire season’s worth of episodes. The ending to this plot line, with the big reveal in the final few chapters, was satisfying, though I wish there had been more of an emotional payoff.
In contrast, Aiyi and Ernest’s respective story arcs are really strong. I loved watching Aiyi fight to maintain her power and financial independence at a time when women still dealt with bound feet and social expectations about their role being limited to the home. I enjoyed watching her negotiate with the powerful Jewish magnate Sassoon, and seeing her outwit Japanese soldiers and her domineering oldest brother, all to hold on to the business she’d worked so hard to build. I was especially captivated by the tension between how much she was willing to sacrifice for Ernest’s sake, because of her love for him, and how much she’d refuse to give up to ensure her own future. I found Aiyi to be a complex, compelling heroine, and I was totally into seeing her story unfold.
Ernest, as well, is a sympathetic character. From the tragic backstory behind the scar on his right hand, to his determination to play through a more recent injury just to keep his sister in school, he’s very much a heroic figure. Perhaps most powerful for me was a scene where his sister’s host family — who housed her while she went to school — decided to go back to America. Their departure forced Ernest to make a near-impossible choice about his family’s future, and while the scene where Ernest makes that decision is probably the most heartbreaking in the entire novel, the aftermath of the decision he makes imbues the scene with even more layers of emotion. It’s a beautiful moment, and one that both shows the kind of person Ernest is, and shapes the kind of person he becomes.
Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.