Book Review – Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Goodreads blurb:

In this enchanting tale about the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening, two hapless city boys are exiled to a remote mountain village for reeducation during China’s infamous Cultural Revolution. There they meet the daughter of the local tailor and discover a hidden stash of Western classics in Chinese translation. As they flirt with the seamstress and secretly devour these banned works, they find transit from their grim surroundings to worlds they never imagined.


My review:

What I do like about this book: The brevity. So many books today are tomes, over 400 pages and honestly, in anyone’s busy life, that can be intimidating and off-putting. This story was packed in less than 200 pages and honestly, that’s all it needed. Though I am left with one serious question –

Did our narrator get to return home? Did Luo?

I also really liked the setting. Pathetic American that I am, I knew nothing of China’s 1970 re-education period. That in itself was fascinating to me. That a government would do that to its people. That people would agree to it and not fight back. Completely reminds me that I have been very blessed to live in a relatively free society.

The descriptions were dead on. I have the lice experience etched in my memory and though it was disgusting, it was vivid, so all props to the author for that well-done imagery.

The discovery of western literature was the heart of the piece in many ways. I have not read a lot of the authors and books the two boys come across, but that didn’t lessen my joy at their joy of discovering these new worlds. I think as a teacher, I always hope for a reaction of pure fascination when I introduce a book to my students. This rarely happens in my classroom, sadly. 🙂

I found that The Little Chinese Seamstress (which was her name) was very interesting. She starts off as a trophy, a prize to be won, but develops all on her own and in the end (spoilers) has been so changed by the literature that she has grown too big for the boys who thought to change her. In general, Luo’s need to ‘culture’ her bothered me immensely, but it’s well worth it when she ditches him at the end. I wasn’t expecting a strong female moment out of this book, so it was pleasantly surprising to see and probably made me the happiest.

What I was less enthusiastic about: There’s nothing that really sticks out. I was not blown away by this book. Perhaps it was more poetic in its original language, but I didn’t find the prose all that mesmerizing.

I also didn’t really enjoy the awakening sexuality for the characters. I mean, I was pretty sure it was going to be included when I read the back of the book, but as i was looking at this books specifically for high school tenth graders, that element was disappointing. It was written well, and not graphically for the sake of shock value or anything, but it just was slightly a let down. The narrator’s weird dream about the girl and his late night reaction was also something that again, written prettily, but not what I felt I needed as a reader.

Then again, I was in teacher mode.

Overall, if Goodreads ratings were based on whether on not a book was well-written, this would have received a much higher rating. As it is based on my enjoyment of the novel, three stars is exactly how I felt about it. Enjoyed the reading, but won’t be gushing to anyone about it. Unless it’s Paul who’s into this genre of literature.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

© ecnewman, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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