Spring Swallow was promised in marriage while still in her mother’s belly. When the groom dies before a wedding can take place, seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow is ordered to become a ghost bride to appease his spirit. Under her in-laws’ protection, she will be little more than a servant, unable to know real love or bear children. Refusing to accept her fate as a “bad-luck woman,” Spring Swallow flees on her wedding day.
In the city of Soochow, Spring Swallow joins a community of renowned embroiderers. The women work for Aunty Peony, whose exquisite stitching once earned her the Emperor’s love. But when Aunty Peony agrees to replicate a famous painting–a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete–betrayal and jealousy emerges within the group. Spring Swallow becomes entangled in each woman’s story of heartbreak, even while she embarks on a dangerous affair with a young revolutionary. On a journey that leads from the remote hillsides around Soochow to cosmopolitan Peking, Spring Swallow draws on the secret techniques learned from Aunty Peony and her own indomitable strength, determined to forge a life that is truly her own.
(Story synopsis from goodreads.com)
Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip was the March read for the Pi Beta Phi book club. Normally I would say that the subject of this book, Chinese culture, was perfect timing. (We just finished with The Three-Inch Golden Lotus by Feng Jicai in my World Lit class.) But I have some unresolved feelings for Secret of a Thousand Beauties.
I guess part of the problem that I have is with the main character, Spring Swallow. I don’t think I ever truly figured out what the motivating factor was for her with all of the decisions that she made. I’m not sure if Spring Swallow even knew what she was looking for herself being that she was simply a teenager having to make very difficult choices.
When the reader first meets Spring Swallow, she is going through her preparations for her wedding. Now this would normally be a very happy occasion, but in this case Spring Swallow was marrying a ghost. (That’s all I’ll say for now.) Once the wedding takes place, Spring Swallow decides that she is going to run away, and ends up being taken in by a woman called Aunty Peony who also has other girls of misfortune living and working for/with her. From the start Aunty Peony is not the most welcoming, warm person that Spring Swallow has ever met, but Aunty does provide a roof over her head a food to eat, all while teaching her the intricate skills that relate to embroidery – a coveted and prosperous practice.
It was difficult for me to decide if this new situation that Spring Swallow found herself in actually made her happy. It seemed to me that she was actually most happy when she was climbing the nearby mountain. It is here, on the mountain, that Spring Swallow meets the man who will become her second husband. (Technically second if you count the marriage to the ghost – which the Chinese did.) But once again, I felt as though Spring Swallow was not truly happy; it almost seemed like she was trying to talk herself into being happy with whatever situation she found herself in.
Now, I understand that not every story is not going to be roses and butterflies…but with this novel it just seemed to start a story and not really come to a conclusion before moving on to the next part. While I understand also that not everything in life has a nice little conclusion to it before moving on, I felt like Mingmei Yip had many opportunities to develop the thoughts and making each one a very interesting, fascinating story. Instead, I was only left with small pieces and became very frustrated with the characters…especially Spring Swallow.
By the conclusion of Secret of a Thousand Beauties, Spring Swallow has had a total of four marriages, changes her profession, loses and finds family members, and I, unfortunately, still can’t really tell you what the major takeaway from the novel was supposed to be. As I mentioned before, Secret of a Thousand Beauties could have been a great story that gave deeper insight into the Chinese culture, but instead I feel like I was left more with a lost teenager who still had a lot of searching to do of her own.