This engaging novel, set in China during the Cultural Revolution and inspired by a true account, is the story of a young girl's experience of growing up and falling in love. But the story told in this novel is more than a simple tale of love.
Jingqiu is an intelligent and very innocent young woman from a poor and politically questionable family; she is very aware of what she refers to as her 'bad status' background and knows she cannot afford to put a foot wrong. Her father has been denounced as an enemy of the Cultural Revolution and, for punishment, he has been sent out to a countryside camp to be re-educated by peasants. Her brother has also been sent from his city home to work in the fields. Jingqiu will be allowed to finish her education and then she will be expected to follow her brother and work on the land - unless she is able to find a husband from a 'better' family - but Jingqiu does not want to marry unless she finds a man she can love and respect.
During the first weeks of spring in 1974, Jingqiu, who is in senior high school, is chosen along with three other pupils to take part in a project to compile a school textbook. In order to do this, the group have to travel to the countryside to live alongside peasant families. Jingqiu is fortunate in the family she lives with during this time; the Zhangs make her welcome and treat her as if she is a guest and one of them at the same time. Jingqiu is initially happy, but she soon sees that the second eldest son of the family, Lin, is eager to become her fiancé, however although Jingqiu acknowledges that he is a good and kind person, she does not find herself attracted to him. To make the situation more difficult, Jingqiu then meets Jianxin Sun - referred to throughout the story as Old Third because the family call him their 'adopted' third son - and finds herself falling deeply in love with him. She knows that Old Third is from a wealthy family and that with her 'bad class status' she should not even think of there being anything between them, but when he shows her that he feels the same way, she finds it very difficult to resist his advances. That is until a family friend informs her that Old Third has a secret which means that he and Jingqiu should not even think about a future together.
Ai Mi's 'Under the Hawthorn Tree' is the story of Jingqiu's and Old Third's love for each other and of the difficulties that face them in a time and place where both extreme politics and family misunderstandings cause pain and heartache. However the theme of this book is not about a country's political struggles, it is the poignant and lovely story of a young woman's coming of age and of two people who long for a future together which is not controlled nor condemned by society or the state. This book was a gift and I initially thought that I might find it too romantically sentimental, but I didn't. Yes, it is romantic and it is sentimental - but I also found it interesting, poignant and emotionally rich. A satisfying and absorbing read.