Saturday, March 07, 2009

Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter of Shanghai ~ Reviewed

The Painter from Shanghai (Historical Fiction)
by Jennifer Cody Epstein

Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN-10: 0393065286


Reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha, a re-imagining of the life of Pan Yuliang and her transformation from prostitute to post-Impressionist. Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River and into the seedy backrooms of "The Hall of Eternal Splendor," through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China ripped apart by civil war and teetering on the brink of revolution: this novel tells the story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most talented—and provocative—Chinese artists of the twentieth century.

Jennifer Cody Epstein's epic brings to life the woman behind the lush, Cezannesque nude self-portraits, capturing with lavish detail her life in the brothel and then as a concubine to a Republican official who would ultimately help her find her way as an artist. Moving with the tide of historical events, The Painter from Shanghai celebrates a singularly daring painting style—one that led to fame, notoriety, and, ultimately, a devastating choice: between Pan's art and the one great love of her life.


The Painter of Shanghai is a must read for fans of Amy Tan's writing and Memoirs of a Geisha lovers. Jennifer Cody Epstein writes about the life of a famous Chinese "Western-style Woman Painter" Pan Yuliang spanning 1913 through 1957. Did I say writes? Understatement. Make that paints, sculpts, embroiders a sweeping portrait of a child sold into prostitution for an opium fix.

Epstein pens Yuliang as authentically as I've ever seen a character written and once I picked up the book I was in China or France or the Hall of Eternal Splendor. Yuliang's point of view bleeds colors, shadows, light and contrast, painting with lush words the horror of her situation. Melancholy and longing wash each chapter and each scene, not with gray, but with monochromatic blues and purples. This is not an easy read. The horror of Yuliang's life is raw and ugly. Her spirit and the beauty that she was able to find within that life make the book one I will pick up again.

Don't expect a clean, happy ever after read, instead it is a rich story that will haunt you.

Reviewed by: Kelly Klepfer

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