Letter From Peking, by Pearl S. Buck

The entire works of Pearl Buck are on 'the list' because she's a Nobel Laureate (Literature, 1938). I read The Good Earth in high school and loved it. Letter from Peking was originally published in 1975, and I listened to an audio version narrated by Bonnie Huren. I was disappointed.

The book is set in 1950 and written in the form of a diary of Elizabeth MacLeod, an American woman who has lived most of her adult wife in Peking with her bi-racial husband. After the war and the Communist takeover of China, she and her son flee China while her husband remains in China. As the book opens, Elizabeth and her son Rennie have been living in rural Vermont for five years, and she has just received what she believes will be Gerald's last letter.

The secret of this letter is not revealed for several chapters, while Elizabeth remenisces about her idyllic life in Peking and her perfect relationship with her (absent) husband. Once the nature of their relationship has been dwelt on sufficiently, Buck reveals that the letter from Gerald is a request for her permission for him to take a Chinese wife, which the government is pressuring him to do. Meanwhile Elizabeth, alone in America, must deal with her teenage's son first amorous relationship, and her aging father-in-law's descent into senility.

I listened to this book with growing frustration and dislike for the narrator. She constantly maintains the perfection of her husband's love for her, and blames political forces for forcing them asunder unwillingly. She insists, to her son and suitors, that Gerald did not 'choose' to leave her, and that he could not leave his country and the responsibilities of his job. But of course, he did choose to leave her. She chose to leave her country and join him at the beginning of her marriage, but he did not do the same. She relentlessly refuses to feel any anger or resentment toward him and doesn't even acknowledge that he's abandoned his family responsibilities entirely to her care.

Elizabeth is not very likeable, either. She's arrogant as hell. She uses the myth of her perfect marriage to look down on others; Rennie's first girlfriend and her family only have hearts 'the size of a cup', according to her, and she ruthlessly uses Rennie's Chinese heritage against him to end the relationship. She has a brief correspondence with Gerald's new wife, who, she judges from a few letters, is also small-hearted. She has what she feels is a supernatural experience and she eagerly invites the wife of her hired hand to tell her about similar visions, then pointedly remarks how ignorant she is. Twice.

All of this is doubly revolting because she so obviously considers herself to be a very broad-minded, wise person.

This had the potential to be an interesting treatment of racial identity, but with such an unlikeable main character, it rather irritates than enlightens.

No comments: