Top critical review
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Beautiful in parts, lacking in others
on 12 February 2006
I was drawn to this book as I have read a few others which are similar. I came to the book having quite high hopes for it, and I have to say, I was disappointed. For me the beginning was far too drawn out. While I understand that Min wanted to convey the longing and the loneliness of Orchid as she waited to be summoned by the Emporor, for me it just went on for too long. It got to the stage where I found her main character a bit whiny and irritating. This is something I do not say lightly - I have read many early Japanese memoirs by court ladies, and fiction such as THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI which is set in medieval China, and I have loved the way the authors expressed their loneliness and isolation living within a world dictated by ritual. Personally, for me, Min did not achieve the delicate balance of mixing despair with beauty and hope.
I think one of the underlying problems is that Min did not develop certain aspects of the story well enough. The plot seemed to jump from one situation to the next with little or no explicit progression. For example, I think the collapse of China around Orchid was not developed well enough - that part of the story seemed rushed and slightly forgotten, it just seemed to appear from the page when you least suspectd it. It could have been a fascinating and heart-rending description of a forgotten world and how it met it's demise, with comparisons of how life was and then what it became, yet I don't think this is what Min did. Likewise, she did not truly develop Orchid's longing for another man. Until the very end of the book, I don't think she concentrated on it enough - again it could have been a fabulous opportunity for a stark contrast between Orchid's feelings of obligation and her heart's desire opposing this.
While there are parts of the book which I loved - in places the descriptions of the Forbidden City and the ritual around it are breathtaking - but I personally felt as though the downsides to the book just outweighed the good.