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The Distant Land of My Father
by Bo Caldwell
ISBN 0156027135 / 9780156027137 / 0-15-602713-5
Publisher Harvest Books
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The Distant Land of My Father begins like a fairy tale: "My father was a millionaire in Shanghai in the 1930s.... On the day he was born, in the province of Shantung, neighbors presented my missionary grandparents, the only Americans for miles, with noodles in great abundance and one hundred chicken eggs, in honor of their son's birth." To the young Anna Schoene, life in Shanghai is indeed magical. There are servants, a luxurious villa, a beautiful mother who smells like Chanel No. 5, and a young, handsome, polo-playing father. Unfortunately, her father is also a smuggler and speculator who loves his freewheeling life more than anything (or anyone) else. Despite warnings, Schoene refuses to leave Shanghai even after the Japanese invade, and his wife and child retreat to Los Angeles; later, he survives imprisonment and torture only to once again choose Shanghai over his family--this time with the Communists moving in.
Bo Caldwell's sepia-toned evocation of 1930s Shanghai is lovely and physical, and given the built-in drama of its setting, this first novel ought to have the vividness of a classic movie. Yet the characters remain oddly flat while world events swirl around them. Great chunks of historical exposition seem largely undigested, while Schoene's final change of heart fails to ring true. In a sense, however, these shortcomings are beside the point. The Distant Land of My Father is above all a tragic romance, albeit one with an unusual love interest. Schoene is so besotted with Shanghai that his wife and daughter are scarcely as real to him as the city itself. --Mary Park [via]