As Madame Wu reaches her fortieth birthday, she makes a decision that will change the life of everyone in her multi-generational housing complex. She decides that she will retire from being a woman, and bring a concubine to live with her (up-until-then faithful) husband in her place.
This is the third book I’ve read by Buck. The Good Earth, my first read, was a brilliant book, one of my favorites ever. My second read, Death in the Castle, was completely different in language, tone, and style, and far more mediocre. Pavilion of Women was far closer in style to The Good Earth, and I enjoyed it nearly as much (at least for the first 2/3rds – I’ll get to that later). I really liked Madame Wu right away. She lives in this rich family, controlling her husband without ever seeming, to his eyes, to control him. She manages everything in the house, from the accounts to her sons’ brides. Now, after 24 years of this management and submitting herself to her husband’s ardor night after night, all she wants to do is sit back in a quiet room and read.
Pavilion of Women was published in 1948, and I wonder if there was any uproar against it when it came out. The narrator is deceptively outspoken, cloaked in a quiet, self-deprecating manor, even in her silent narration. Lines like this one jumped out at me, not-so-subtle but also not at all what I would expect from proper, stately Madame Wu:
…she saw his dark eyes flicker and burn with a flame certainly more intense than she had seen for a long time. She closed her eyes, and her heart began to beat. Would she regret her decision? She lay as soft as a plucked flower for the next two hours, asking herself many times this question. Would she regret? Would she not regret?
At the end of the two hours, she knew she would not regret.
It’s written so poetically, but the poetry doesn’t hide it’s meaning. This woman is tired of sleeping with her husband for two hours every night! The book is full of these little innuendos, both sexual and political, which made the book far more rebellious than I was expecting.
One of my favorite aspects of the book is how deep Buck goes into Chinese culture, religion, and lifestyle. She lived in China for years, from her early childhood, and I think she got as close as anyone can get to really knowing a culture, while still being slightly outside of it. Unlike many writers of the time, when she writes about this non-Western culture, she does so with respect. So many writers spoke of non-Western cultures as being either inferior, exotic, or savage. Buck’s love of China and Chinese culture really comes through in Pavilion of Women, just as it did in The Good Earth. She writes about customs and beliefs without bias – without praise or censure. I feel like I can trust her portrayal.
I loved this book from the beginning, but unfortunately, the last third of the book shifted downwards for me. The book changed focus from Madame Wu and her household, to her spiritual awakening through a non-denominational priest named Brother André. While I liked Brother André’s character a lot, especially the way he never preached religion but lived what he believed a good life should be, I didn’t like that the book became moralistic and preachy through his influence. It was especially incongruous because André himself was not preachy or moralistic! So that, coupled with a few “amazing coincidences” and “happy endings,” made the end of the book feel forced and unrealistic. I preferred the neutral series of events in The Good Earth – some good, some bad – to the way Pavilion of Women ended. Other than that, though, I enjoyed the book, and it was nice to read something similar in style and tone to The Good Earth, which as I said before, is one of my very favorites.