Monday, June 22, 2020

Brave Girl, Quiet Girl by Catherine Ryan Hyde

I started whispering in her ear, but so quiet I wasn’t sure she could even hear me. It was more like making the words with my lips against her ear, but then just this tiny breath of air that was the sound.

I said, “Brave girl, quiet girl.”

She said it back to me, just as quiet, which really surprised me. She stopped her run-up to that big cry and whispered back to me, “Brave girl, kiet girl,” right in my ear. She didn’t really get the kw sound in quiet—I think she was too young to have gotten the hang of that sound--but anyway I knew what she meant so what difference did it make?

Catherine Ryan Hyde’s 2020 novel, Brave Girl, Quiet Girl, begins with a violent car-jacking. Brooke, a divorced single mom is driving her mother’s  expensive Mercedes with her two year old daughter, Etta, strapped into her car-seat in the back, but she is dragged from the car by the thief, and watches helplessly as the car drives off with her daughter still strapped in.

This occurs in the first few pages of this frightening and yet lovely book about Brooke, Etta, and Molly, a sixteen-year-old homeless girl.  Molly is with her also homeless male friend late at night when she spots Etta, still strapped in her car-seat on the sidewalk. With no phone, no money, and no idea how Etta got there, Molly is faced with the daunting challenge of returning the little girl to her family.

I have sometimes put aside one of Hyde’s many novels because it seems just too sentimental, too sweet, too full of pathos. And this novel is certainly high on the pathos scale, and yet it captured me early on, gripped me, and I just could not stop reading it until I was finished.

Molly is homeless and on the streets because she has been tossed out of her home in St. George Utah and told not to return unless, and until, she has shed the devil that she has brought into her family home. Molly, under pressure from her girlfriend, had decided to come out to her mother, and that is what her mother labels bringing the devil into the home.

I won’t divulge much of the story here, but I will tell you that the reader is kept on tenterhooks during the early phases as Molly tries to care for little Etta and to hide her away from other street youths who intend to grab her from Molly and hold her for ransom. Molly had helped raise her two younger sisters, and so is a competent and loving caretaker, but with no funds for food or diapers for the toddler. 

After several very frightening events, Molly is finally able to race after a police car with Etta holding on for dear life, and thus begins the reuniting of Etta with her mother Brooke. Initially, Brooke is angry with the young girl, not understanding why she did not alert the police earlier or find a way to call Etta’s mother in spite of the fact that there is an amber alert out for her. The rest of the novel is devoted to the interactions of mother and daughter and the intervention of a sympathetic female police officer who firmly but gently leads Brooke into a better understanding of Molly’s heroic actions in saving Etta. 

Although Brooke, herself, has a very troubled relationship with her own mother, she assumes that Molly must have done something horrible or unlawful to have provoked her mother in to forcing her from the home. She decides to drive from California to St. George to confront Molly’s mother, and to, hopefully, get Molly back into her family home. 

When Brooke finally confronts Molly’s mother and learns of her super-fundamentalist religious beliefs that treat homosexuality as a dreadful sin and a chosen life-style that can be discarded like a filthy cloak, she begins to reassess Molly and to try to care for her in something like the loving ways Molly has cared for Etta. 

While the plot is what drives this novel, it turns out to reveal a deep understanding of street-kids, and the many different reasons that people find themselves homeless and living on the streets. I find myself very impressed by both Hyde’s excellent story-telling and her desire to talk about social issues and the meaning of love.

Baby Etta loves Molly from the start, and calls out Molly, Molly, Molly whenever she sees her. While it takes much longer for Brooke to begin to see the sterling qualities of Molly, the relationship that develops between the two women is heartening 

I suppose there will be some readers who find this book to be corny and much too sentimental, I thought it to be a beautiful story about love, and redemption. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Late In The Day by Tessa Hadley

It is always such a pleasure to stumble onto a writer previously unknown who absolutely commands attention. Tess Hadley is such a writer. Today I want to talk about her 2019 novel Late in the Day. I am so struck with her writing and her wisdom that I find trying to review her work daunting, and I’m not at all sure I’m up to the task. Like the great author, Elizabeth Bowen, whom Hadley deeply admires, Hadley writes primarily, even exclusively, about domestic scenes. While her characters may be more brilliant and creative than most people, what she tries to describe, carefully, minutely, are the everyday concerns of people living intimately together. 

Christine and Lydia have been devoted friends since their early twenties, and their two husbands, Alexander and Zachery, are nearly as close. Zach and Lydia own a small but well known art gallery. Christine is an artist and her husband Alex is a teacher and art dealer. The foursome are as close as any four friends could be, and are drawn even closer in that each has a daughter of roughly the same age who grow up together in the bosom of that extended family.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, when all four are in their fifties, Zach dies of a heart attack, and  in the aftermath of his death, Lydia moves in with Alex and Christine and the two daughters Grace and Isobel stay in Isobel’s flat. All agree that Zach is the most irreplaceable, the glue binding them together. At first, it seems that the loss of Zach will bring the other three closer together, and in many senses it does. But eventually, due to entanglements from their pasts as well as the different ways they cope with the loss, the relationships begin to fray.

The story is far too complex to simply gloss, and it is not really the story or its outcome that matter most to Hadley; it is the almost minute by minute transformations that she expertly reveals. I first started reading this book in 2019, but gave up on it after about fifty pages; it just seemed too complex, and I’m sure I moved on to something lighter and less demanding.  This is not a novel that can or should be read in small snippets of weeks or months; like another book of hers (The Past), it is best read in a sustained manner, not quickly, but with rather complete attention. 

In broad terms, suffice it to say that when Christine and Lydia first met Alex (who was himself already married), it was Lydia who became obsessed with him, who felt she must find a way into his life. 
But Christine felt how Alex didn’t respond to this charm [of Lydia’s] as he was supposed to. Lydia’s audacious frankness, her wide-eyed delivery, complacent like a purring cat, which had been so confounding to other men, didn’t impress him. In Alex’s presence , so perfected and adult, Lydia’s cleverness seemed flawed and home-made, embarrassing like a precocious child’s.
And so it is Christine who ends up marrying Alex, though as the story unwinds, it becomes obvious that the flame in Lydia for Alex lies smoldering through the years to come. 

There is much discussion among the friends and their little community of intellectuals and artists about the nature of art, of what constitutes great art, and with the question of whether women can be serious artists. 
Lydia put in her own remarks among the men, and they all deferred to her, but Christine saw that they didn’t quite take what she said seriously—not because they thought it was stupid exactly, but because her appearance blocked their attention, like a dazzle of sunlight in a reflection off glass. They were exaggeratedly solicitous and encouraging when the girls spoke, as they were with one another. There was a danger, Christine thought, that you might end up performing for them, like a curiosity—and Lydia was inclined to show off if she had an audience.
Eventually, the situation devolves into a love triangle, or perhaps I should say a love quadrangle. Angers and resentments boil up over many things. Zach comes into a great deal of money (which allows him to buy the art gallery and to begin to buy and trade prestigious artworks). Rather than being envious of Zach and Lydia’s wealth, it is Zach’s attempts to help the other couple financially that begins to cause rifts in their relationship.

Hadley is not one to tie things up neatly in the end; like real life, things are left dangling and incomplete. “Alex had said once that she (Christine) ought to give up her hope of wholeness, of a meaning, because it was na├»ve.”
Letting herself into the flat she was glad to be alone. Solitude and silence had begun to be sensuous pleasures for her. It would have been awful in that moment to give false explanations to anyone, perform the sociability she did not feel. Instead she slipped off her shoes before she walked around the rooms, as if she didn’t want to intrude even her own presence noisily.
Besides her four novels, Hadley has also published several volumes of short fiction. I intend to read all of her work. She is a rare find and a superb writer.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Wild Life by Molly Gloss

I admit I was pierced with loneliness. There is something about a lighted room when you are standing outside it in the cold night.
Good morning readers. Although I was already aware of what a fine writer Molly Gloss is from having read her novel Jump-Off Creek, I must admit I was stunned by the depth of her wisdom in her 2000 novel Wild Life. Writing as Charlotte Bridger Drummond, or simply C.B.D., Gloss creates a character who is tough, independent, and a fully fledged feminist. Set in the early 1900s in a small logging town on the borders of Oregon and Washington, Charlotte is a widowed mother of five boys who supports her family by writing women’s adventure novels. Charlotte is fiercely independent; she wears men’s clothes, smokes cigars or a pipe in public, eschews domestic tasks as far as possible, and creates for herself a private writing space, a room of her own.

Charlotte is irreverent and often very humorous in her descriptions of men and of their laughably absurd views of the weakness of women.  The men in the logging camps are fond of telling tall tales about Wild Men of the Woods, and while Charlotte, herself, is not opposed to to wild-west tales, she is scornful of the way men tell their stories as attempts to scare women and children.

The novel is as much about writing as it is about the adventure Charlotte goes through when she joins a search party looking for a young girl, Harriet, who has been lost in the woods and who loggers claimed was carried off by a huge, hairy ape-like animal. As the story begins to unfold, it transpires that Charlotte, herself, becomes separated from the rest of the search party.

Quoting Samuel Butler as she begins to describe her life lost in the wild, Molly Gloss begins to prepare her readers to suspend disbelief and allow her to spin her story.
When anything in [my books] is strange and outre, it is probably drawn straight from nature as close as I could draw it; when it is plausible, there is probably no particular and especial foundation for it.
Even the domestic help Charlotte has hired to free her up from many domestic tasks is outwardly disdainful of Charlotte’s lack of femininity,. and scolds her for spending so much time away from her children and locked in her writing shed.
She was half inclined to cry at being unable to devote herself entirely to her work, though she considered the work only a means to an end, which was the support of her family. In later years she would discover that the work was everything to her—everything—but now she tossed and tossed, trying to explain and defend something that shifted and was elusive; and at such times she has secretly—horrifyingly—wished for a calamity that would free her of the weight, the otherwise inescapable burden of her maternity.
If I had been born a man, I would have created for myself a world full of work and egoism and imagined that my whole life belonged to me. But since I was born a woman, I suffered the usual girlish desires and aspirations; and I believed that my life should eventually be joined to a husband.

Both a mother and a wife by the age of twenty, and then within ten years a widowed wife and mother of five boys. All of this novel is peppered with stories and quotes from women about what they are expected to write about.

I have said nothing yet about Charlotte’s life while lost in the wild, and I don’t intend to reveal much of that story to you. Suffice it to say that Charlotte , starving and near dead is taken in by a family of human-like creatures who allow her to hunt and gather with them and who cause her to question her previous beliefs about the relations between humans and creatures of the woods. If you are a reader wholly opposed to fantastical literature, then this may not be the book for you, but I would also remind you of the splendid books of Ursula K. Le Guin, and invite you to suspend for a time your skepticism.

Gloss may well be describing herself, or Le Guin, or countless other women writers  as she speaks in the voice of C.B.D.:
As a thoroughgoing Feminist and a woman who has herself thrown over the traces of domestication as much as can be done without risking arrest, I do my best to swim against the tide. For heroine of a scientific romance, I will always choose the scientifically inclined daughter or sister of a world-renowned anthropologist; and for the western romance, look for a girl who can ride and shoot, a ranch girl born and raised in the West…
Although I, myself, have in the past rejected most fantasy writing,  in the past couple of decades I have been more open to fantasy fiction as a vehicle for environmental issues, for women’s fiction, and simply for the delight of the stories.

This is a book I could well have reviewed simply by stringing together quotes from the novel. It is a wonderfully humorous novel as it pokes fun at men and holds up to the light expectations of women not only of the West or of days gone by, but of us-here-now.

Monday, April 27, 2020

A Piece Of The World by Christina Baker Kline

Over the years, certain stories in the history of a family take hold. They’re passed from generation to generation, gaining substance and meaning along the way. You have to learn to sift through them, separating fact from conjecture, the likely from the implausible. 
Here is what I know: Sometimes the least believable stories are the true ones.
Christina Baker Kline was fascinated with Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World from the time she was a little girl, and the fascination remained as she grew into the wonderful writer she is today. I share that fascination as I’m sure many of you do. There is something austere and haunting about the painting. As Kline says in her Author’s Notes: “Throughout my childhood I made up stories about this slight girl in a pale pink dress with her back to the viewer, reaching toward a weathered gray house on a bluff in the distance.”

In her fictionalized account of Christina, Kline tells the story of a girl who is crippled from childhood on—victim of a degenerative disease that renders her more and more unable to move much or to care for herself. While Kline is adamant that her novel is fiction, nevertheless it is obvious that she has researched both Wyeth and Christina extensively giving the book the feel of autobiography. The character Kline creates is austere, unsentimental, and fiercely private.

Alvaro, Al, is Christina’s brother and eventually her caretaker; he gives up his own dreams and even his hopes for a wife and family of his own to care for his sister. As a very young girl, she is cared for by her father, but he is embarrassed by her ‘infirmity’ and so keeps her out of school and pretty much sheltered from the world.
I want more than anything for Papa to be proud of me, but he has little reason. For one thing, I am a girl. Even worse—I know this already, though no one’s ever actually said it to me—I am not beautiful.
On top of that, there’s my infirmity. When we’re around other people, Papa is tense and irritable, afraid that I’ll stumble, knock into someone, embarrass him. My lack of grace annoys him. He is always muttering about a cure.
His shame makes me defiant. I don’t care that I make him uncomfortable. Mother says it would be better if I weren’t so willful and proud. But my pride is all I have.
Christina knows that her father was drawn to her mother because of her mother’s great beauty, and thus always feels judged as both awkward and ugly.

Through a friend whom Christina mentored as a young girl, and who comes back into her life as a young woman, she is introduced to the then young and unknown painter Andrew Wyeth, who lives in the shadow of his already famous father who is well known for his illustrations. Young Andrew begins to hang around the house, sketching the house and the farmland around it. He sketches Al doing his chores. He is allowed to convert an unused bedroom into a studio and becomes a kind of fixture. “He doesn’t see us as a project that needs fixing. He doesn’t perch on a chair, or linger in a doorway, with the air of someone who wants to leave, who’s already halfway out the door. He just settles in and observes…He understands why I’m content to spend my days sitting in the chair in the kitchen, feet up on the blue-painted stool, looking out at the sea…There’s more grandeur in the bleached bones of a storm-rubbed house, he declares, than in drab tidiness.

Andrew also suffered from an ailment that caused him to walk with an awkward gait, and although she refuses his requests to paint her, she is comfortable in his presence and comes to see him as a friend to both her and Al.

There is a lovely slow pace to this novel, and I found myself often looking at the print of the famous painting in the back of the book. What is it about the painting that makes it so magnetic and yet so sad?

Although Andy hangs around the brother and sister for thirty years, Christina only allows him to paint her after many years of refusal.

Again from the Author’s Notes:
For the next thirty years, Christina was Andrew Wyeth’s muse and his inspiration. In each other, I believe, they came to recognize their own contradictions. Both embraced austerity but craved beauty; both were curious about other people and yet pathologically private. They were perversely independent and yet reliant on others to take care of their basic needs: Wyeth on his wife Betsy and Christina on Alvaro.
There is little action in this novel, and it takes some getting into, but you readers will eventually be as drawn to to the novel as to the famous painting, and for much the same reason.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

I want to talk to you today about a book that is at once extremely sad and incredibly lovely. The book is The Butterfly Girl, by Rene Denfeld. Ms. Denfeld is an author, journalist and licensed public defense investigator. I have previously reviewed her other two novels, The Enchanted, about death-row inmates, and The Child Finder. I won’t tell you too much about the story-line since it is a kind of mystery, and I would not want to be a spoiler.

There are two primary narrators in this novel: Naomi, an investigator who specializes in finding lost children, and Celia, a twelve year old girl who lives in a sort of community of street children. Naomi has decided she will not take another case until she finds her younger sister with whom she was abducted years before. Naomi escaped, but her sister did not. She has no picture of her sister and no name, but she is determined to find her. Naomi remembers very little of her own escape, but one lead has led her to Portland, Oregon, and it is there that she continues her search.

Celia is on the run from an abusive stepfather and a mother who is an addict. While she occasionally checks in with her mother, she is afraid to give away her location.
Celia disappeared inside herself. She was used to doing that. She could make herself vanish even as she stood there, just another street urchin with no future in sight. 
Celia who believed in nothing but herself and the butterflies, knew that the worst fears of the streets were always real. You can find that out the hard way, or you can be watchful. 
Naomi and her husband Jerome are staying with one of Naomi’s old friends while Naomi continues her search. She wakens from a dream of still being in captivity, and hearing the voice of her sister “back there. In that place.”
She breathed out in relief that the dream was over but still felt the anxious echo of the call. 
I’m getting closer, she thought. This is why she was here in the city with Jerome. After almost a year of searching for her long-lost sister, their investigation had brought them here.
Celia and her street friends Rich and Stoner sleep under an overpass at night, and offer each other friendship and what protection they can provide.

When Celia first encounters Naomi on the streets where Naomi is asking questions of street people in hopes of coming up with some leads, Celia does not trust this well dressed and seemingly assured woman, but eventually as the story unwinds she begins to trust her, and Naomi, for her part, cannot ignore this streetwise child even though she is on her own search.

Denfeld is an incredible writer, not simply sympathetic to the street people, her connection is much deeper. She could be describing herself as she describes Naomi during a period in her investigations.
Naomi was standing outside the Aspire shelter. The smeary brick, the narrow streets, the shapes huddled in the doorways—all felt familiar to her now. She has crossed the threshold. The world of the missing had become her own world. She knew the regulars, the bruised-cherry alcoholics, the families on nodding acquaintance, the street kids like Celia.
There is no condescension in Denfeld’s dealings with the homeless, no us/them dichotomy. No wonder she can create such believable characters, can give the reader views from the inside.

As in her novel The Child Finder, Denfeld is intrigued by and describes meticulously how children who are held captive and cannot escape may create a kind of escape with their minds. Celia escapes via her world of beautiful butterflies, her guides and guardians on the streets. 
If you take a burrowing animal and deny it anything but a glass cage, it  will break its  own claws in the madness to escape. Naomi, who once had no escape, had created one with her mind.
Margaret Atwood, who is herself an amazing and deeply insightful author says of this book, “A heartbreaking, finger-gnawing, and yet ultimately hopeful novel…”

I have no intention of telling you in what ways the novel is hopeful or of revealing much more of the plot, but I am certain you will find this a socially significant and rewarding read. In her acknowledgements Denfeld credits libraries for her books and for her salvation. Like many of us she finds books to be a window into a better world.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

In a wonderfully perceptive and often humorous debut novel, Such a Fun Age, Kiley Reid takes on issues of race and class in a delightfully light-handed way. It is the story of two women, a white woman, Alix Chamberlain who writes a kind of inspirational blog urging  women to take power in  the workplace, and a twenty-five year old black woman, Emira, who babysits Alix’s wonderfully precocious three year old daughter, Briar, so that Alix can work from home. Emira and her three closest friends, Zara, Josefa, and Shaunie are all recent college graduates; they often go our drinking and dancing together, and the novel opens with the four women at a birthday party for Shaunie. Due to an egging at the Chamberlain house which includes a rock being thrown through a doorway window, Alix calls Emira begging her to come take Briar away from the home for an hour or so since the police have been called, and Alix and her husband Peter do not want young Briar to be exposed to the hubbub of flashing lights and police in the home.

Emira agrees, though explaining that she is dressed for the party and does not look much like a baby-sitter. No problem, insists Alix and promises to send a cab and to pay her double for the inconvenience. Since this opening scene is pivotal to the rest of the novel, I will recount a bit more without giving away much of the storyline. Emira takes Briar to a very upscale little convenience story nearby to keep her entertained during the police visit. Zara has accompanied Briar and Emira to the store and they end up dancing down one of the aisles with Briar leading the way. An overzealous security guard decides that, since Emira is obviously not the mother of the child, he needs to intervene. A very tall young white man begins to use his phone to capture video of the encounter and to offer up advice to Emira.
“Hey hey hey.” The man behind the cell phone tried to get Emira’s attention. ”Even if they ask, you don’t have to show your ID. It’s Pennsylvania state law." 
Emira said, ”I know my rights dude.” 
"Sir?” The security guard stood and turned. ”You do not have the right to interfere with a crime.” 
“Holdup holdup, a crime…what crime is  being committed right now? I’m working,
I’m making money right now, and I bet I’m making more than you." 
“Okay ma’am?” The security guard widened his stance to match hers. ‘You are being held and questioned because the safety of a child is at risk.'
Emira manages to call the Chamberlain’s home, and within minutes Peter shows up; the security guard completely changes his demeanor and the situation de-escalates. The young man who tried to intervene, Kelley, turns out to be a central character in the rest of the novel. 

Much of the early parts of the novel are taken up with conversations between Emira and her best friends, and Alix and her best friends. All of the friends are various shades of color, and the repartee between the women is often very funny and enlightening about working women in New York and Philadelphia, and the struggles with childcare.

Although resistant at first, Emira begins to date Kelley.  They trade stories about their lives and soon realize how compatible they are. The third star of this book is Briar, or simply B, and her many interactions with Emira (who  she calls Mira).

Alix, who loves the relationship between her daughter and Emira, begins to try to make Emira a part of the family, and seems to genuinely love her. Alix’s parents had come into a lot of money at some point in Alix’s childhood, and used it to buy extravagant homes and cars. As it happens, Alix and Kelley had a tumultuous relationship in high school, and that relationship causes near disastrous consequences for Emira and Kelley as well as Alix.

Emira learns that not only does Kelley have a lot of black friends, but that he seems to date only light skinned black women. The many conversations between the women reveal so much about race and class issues, but author Reid is, I think, extremely skillful in stepping back as narrator and allowing the characters themselves to bring out the issues. Even when the novel turns very serious in the end, Reid refuses to enter in as omniscient narrator  or even to provide commentary on the actions that take place.

Given that this is Black History month, I had initially intended to talk about Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara, all of whom I have reviewed in the past years. But there is something so fresh and crisp about Reid’s writing and such a here-and-now look at questions of race and class that I felt I must review her novel. Hard to believe it is a debut novel, but then she has been writing for a long time and has published in many magazines.

The combination of humor and wisdom in this book make it one that I hope will be read widely.

Monday, January 06, 2020

The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning

This long  and beautifully constructed novel bounces back and forth between Vienna in the late 30s and early 40s, Melbourne 2016, and Shanghai (also in the late 30s and 40s).

It is the story of a friendship between a beautiful Shanghai girl, Li, and a Jewish refugee, Romy. They meet in Shanghai in 1939. The two become instant best friends  who explore densely populated Shanghai “Paris of the East”. While author Manning insists that it is a work of fiction, it is nevertheless a well researched historical novel. As she explains in the author’s notes, “Shanghai had opened its doors to more than twenty thousand refugees fleeing Europe, at a time when no other country would.”

The story begins in Vienna as Romy, 12, is literally dragged along by her parents through a scene of chaos , smoke and flying glass everywhere as the Jewish ghetto is raised in what would come to be known as Kristallnacht. Both of Romy’s brothers are dragged off by Nazi soldiers only one of whom lives long enough to be sent to a concentration camp.

Without telling too much of this novel, suffice it to say that Romy and her father eventually escape Vienna by fleeing first to Italy which was not yet conjoined with Germany, and then by boat to Shanghai. Romy’s father is a doctor and soon finds employment in the Jewish hospital in Shanghai and Romy begins her exciting relationship with Li. The third strand of the story takes the reader to Melbourne in 2016.  Alexandra has recently left London and a relationship she had thought would culminate in marriage and rushes to Melbourne to be with her dying grandpa, Wilhelm and her grandmother Romy. 

The author takes the readers through the four sections (or con cessions)  of Shanghai: the International Concession, the ghetto where Jews are permitted to live and work,, the zone controlled by the Japanese, and the French concession full of luxury hotels and shops. Manning always takes the time to describe in detail the huge variety of food and flowers to be seen there. Knowing so very little of Shanghai, and nothing of its tolerance of Jewish refugees during the war, I was stunned by the descriptions of this magical city.

The character of Li, while fictional, is based on a very famous Shanghai singer; Li lives in a luxurious hotel that she and Romy come to know in great detail. Theirs is one of  several close friendships between female characters in the book. Another is that between Romy and Nina, both Jewish refugees who end up in Melbourne.

Alexandra wants to learn of the histories of her grandparents and after the death of Wilhelm, her grandfather, she goes to Shanghai  and begins her search to uncover their stories. 
While I was writing a story about refugees and how China opened their doors and hearts to the Jews, Australia was locking up refugees who attempted to come there by boat. Why haven’t the lessons of  history taught us to treat people better?
Besides introducing me to Shanghai and is treatment of Jews during World War II, the author also discovers many other interesting bit of war history. 
I also discovered that before 1940 it was possible to be released from a concentration camp if you had a valid passport, visa, permit to take up residency in another country, and proof of transport. Such release was always subject to the prisoner leaving Germany within a limited time. The time frame and the documents needed varied from case to case.
As you read this lovely if often frightening book, I think you might begin to hear echoes of the song of the Jade Lily, almost able to see the beautiful Li as she sang for her enthralled audiences. It is obvious that the author has been captured by the sights and sounds of Shanghai, and she manages to give her readers a window into that world.

One strand of the novel I have not touched on is that of the relationship between traditional Chinese medicine and mainstream medicine. Both Romy and her mother had a keen interest in Chinese medicine as does author Manning, seeing them as adjuncts rather than opposites.