Peach Blossom Spring is a moving and evocative family saga that spans the stories of three generations. It begins in 1938 with Meilin, a young widow who escapes to Taiwan with her son Renshu when Japan invades their village in China. Renshu eventually goes to America for university, and the story picks up there, where he changes his name to Henry Dao.
His early attempts to make friends with fellow Chinese students take a scary turn when he realizes student activities are being reported back to the Chinese government, with some real and drastic consequences for their families still with ties to the mainland. For his mother’s sake, Henry keeps a low profile on his Chinese heritage, and by the time he gets married to a white woman, and has a daughter Lily, he barely ever talks about his past anymore. And when Lily takes Chinese language classes and tries to learn more about her heritage, she finds the topic completely shuts her father down.
The title of the novel comes from an old Chinese story, one of many illustrated on a scroll that Meilin’s husband gives her, and that she takes when she and Renshu flee China. The stories on the scroll keep Meilin and Renshu’s spirits high during the scariest and most dangerous parts of their journey, and ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ in particular is a lovely narrative about a man who leaves home and comes upon a magical place.
An older man overhears Meilin read the story to Renshu for the first time, and observes that Meilin stopped before she got to the ending. The moment, decades later, when Renshu learns the way the story really ended was probably one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the novel for me. I’m usually a bit leery when a writer gets a bit too heavy-handed with the symbolisms of an object, particularly when it’s such an obvious metaphor as a scroll of ancient stories. But in this case, Melissa Fu makes it work. Both the stories in the scroll and the story of the scroll itself are rich with meaning, emotion, and resonance, and just utterly wrecked me.
Meilin’s story covered an area of history I’m not too familiar with, so I’m really glad that this piece of Chinese history is being told to a wide audience in an English language book. That being said, I found it to be a slow start, and while aspects of Meilin’s story were very striking and moving, it wasn’t until Renshu came to America that I felt the story really pulled me in. I think part of it is that the author begins with a very distant tone, listing the Daos and their relationships to each other. The approach makes sense for a family saga, but it also made the first few pages feel somewhat perfunctory, like, here’s all the backstory before we get to the real focus.
Another part I think is that Meilin just had a LOT more going on in her life, events-wise, than Henry and Lily later would. So while Henry’s story could take its time focusing on his gradual distancing from his heritage, and Lily’s story could take its time focusing on her gradual return to it, Meilin’s story was a lot more plot-driven. Her section felt like a rapid-fire series of events, and while Fu does show us Meilin’s thoughts and emotions, the overall tone still felt a bit more distant to me than it did with Henry and Lily’s stories.
Part of me wishes we could have stayed with Meilin throughout the entire novel, and given her story more room to breathe. But then Henry and Lily’s stories were so strong, and Fu ties them back so beautifully to Meilin’s tale that overall, I think the novel does work. It’s a lovely book.
Thank you to Little, Brown, and Company for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.