Aha, I bet you thought I only read pulp fiction. Au contraire, mon ami, I do indeed read real literature as well.
This is the best known book by Pearl S. Buck, and it won the Pulitzer. She also won the Nobel prize for literature, so you know she’s good.
This book, oh boy. I didn’t have any idea what was happening when I started it, I didn’t go online and look at discussions about it or anything, I just read it cold.
It is really something.
The writing is exquisite. I wish I had the lyricism to describe it more extensively than that, but I don’t. It’s just beautiful, achingly beautiful.
The plot, too, is intense.
It follows a family of Chinese peasants in the time before the Communist Revolution.
At the beginning, it’s a man and his old sick father, living alone in a little house on the edge of their land. Aside from an uncle and his family the next town over, they’re alone in the world.
But it’s all about to change because he’s getting married. They worked a deal with the rich family in town to give them one of their ugly female slaves. They wanted ugly so she wouldn’t expect much. Lovely.
They get her and she spends her wedding day cooking the wedding feast for his friends, eventually falling asleep in the kitchen with the ox.
She spends the next several months fixing up the house, cleaning and repairing and just generally improving the quality of life for them both, while caring for the old man and doing all the cooking and cleaning. When the house is done, she starts spending her days working in the fields with her husband.
When she has children, she’s back in the field that same day or the next day.
Still doing all the cooking and cleaning. Never complaining. This woman is a freaking saint.
Then comes the terrible drought. They’re all literally starving to death. She stops her husband from selling the land and they move to a bigger city down south where they survive living in a hut made of mats, the wife and kids begging on the streets while the husband pulls a rickshaw.
Eventually the revolution hits the rich family in that town and their home is thrown open for looting. The husband gets a hefty purse of gold and the wife gets a handful of jewels.
Thus enriched, they return home and use the money to get themselves set up again, new seed and oxes and whatever else they need. With the jewels, they buy more land.
All except two jewels. She begs to keep two pearls, not to have made into earrings or anything, just so she has something beautiful.
The lands prosper. They hire workers, they build a bigger house, they have enough money that they can survive a couple of bad years. It’s everything the husband has ever wanted.
He educates his two older sons, and trains the youngest to be a farmer and stay on the land.
Then there’s a terrible flood and there’s no work to do. He starts visiting the brothel in town and falls in love with one of the women there. He spends endless money on her, even taking his wife’s two precious little pearls for her. Eventually he builds an addition on his house and moves the whore into his own home.
Still, his wife bears it without complaint.
Then she gets sick. The doctors can’t save her. She mutters in her fever that she knows she’s too stupid and ugly to be loved, and her husband, sitting with her, agrees that he never loved her.
I think it bears noting that his entire success was built on her. Her hard work, the jewels she found that bought the extra land, her ability to produce strong children. I cry even now thinking that all of that is not enough to compel love and affection from her husband.
His kids convince him to buy the big house in town and move them there. They marry daughters of town people, they live a merchant’s existence. The youngest son refuses to be a farmer and goes away to be educated.
Eventually he gets old and moves back to his small house on the land while he waits to die. And overhears his two older sons talking about selling the land when he dies. He begs them not to, reminds them that the land is what cushions them from droughts and famine, but of course, as soon as he dies, they sell the land anyway.
There are other things, relationships with servants the courtesan and his uncle’s family who are total jerks, but that’s the main story.
Beautiful. Sad. But terribly beautiful.