A snippet bit of conversation here at Casa JJ:
RUSS: Do you have SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater?
JJ: YES! OMG, here it is, it’s so amazing.
RUSS: Yeah, I saw it in a bookstore the other day and thought about picking it up, but then I thought I’d better ask JJ if she has it first.
JJ: If it’s YA, it’s probably a good bet I have it.
I am the go-to girl for YA around these parts. If I were a superhero, I would probably be YA GIRL, leaping into the conversations with recommendations for the latest book I read. My superpower? Talking the ears off a gundark. Vanquishing evil? Not a problem! Just give me 10 minutes and a really good YA and I swear they will run away in fear of my loquacity.
But despite my love of children’s books, I do occasionally read adult fiction. Sometimes. When asked. Maybe. The most recent recommendation I had was from both Russ and Wicked Cool Riley: OF BEES AND MISTS by Erick Setiawan.
Review of OF BEES AND MIST by Erick Setiawan
OF BEES AND MIST is a beautiful work of magic realism. It is also, in many ways, a very traditional “family saga” as found in a lot of Korean (and other Asian) dramas so favoured by my grandmother. Because my ability to synopsize sucks, I’m going to give you the first paragraph of the book.
Few in town agreed on when the battle began. The matchmaker believed it started the morning after the wedding, when Eva took all of Meridia’s gold and left her with thirteen metres of silk. The fortune-teller, backed by his crystal globe, swore that Eva’s eyes did not turn pitiless until Meridia drenched them in goose blood three months later. The midwife championed another theory: the feud started the day Meridia held her newborn son with such pride that Eva felt the need to humble her. But no matter how loudly the townspeople debated, the answer remained a mystery—and the two women themselves were to blame. Meridia said little, and Eva offered conflicting explanations, which confirmed the town’s suspicion that neither of them could actually remember.
This book is gorgeous and compelling. I started reading it at 10 o’clock Wednesday night and couldn’t go to sleep until I’d finished it. Meridia has grown up in a cold and loveless family, so when Daniel comes along, she can’t resist the warmth of his family. Unfortunately, Daniel’s family is headed by Eva, a “formidable matriarch and the wickedest monster-in-law imaginable”. This description is from the back cover blurb and while it’s true, I would classify Eva as one in a long line of “dragon ladies”.
A Dragon Lady is a Western stereotype of an aggressive, manipulative, and strong Asian woman, but it isn’t as though this stereotype doesn’t exist in Asia either. My grandmother loves watching Korean dramas about family sagas, involving how the matriarch or patriarch (but usually the mother) deal with new members of the family, grandchildren, the plays for power within the house. (The men, oddly enough, are rather secondary in these dramas, but I would argue family sagas are almost exclusively about women.) The matriarch generally represents traditional Confucian values, in which children were absolutely subservient to the parents. The younger generation ascribes to more modern ideas about independence, and therein lies the root of all conflict.
While OF BEES AND MISTS takes place in an indeterminate time and place (although I read the town as being very similar to San Francisco) with characters of indeterminate race, the novel reads as being very Asian to me: the Confucian/modern dissonance, consulting spirits for good fortune, etc. The central conflict between Eva and Meridia and their plays for power is a familiar story to me. I even read a YA version of it in a book called APRIL AND THE DRAGON LADY, although I hated it. It wasn’t as though the novel was terrible, but the story felt tired and flat. On the other hand, I loved this book, even as I found Eva to be a teensy bit two-dimensional. Because the other characters are more than what they seem, I kept hoping to see a bit more of Eva’s humanity (often in these sorts of books the matriarch is trying to preserve what she thinks is best for her family), but she remained solidly against Meridia. For no real good reason.
Regardless, this novel is simply beautiful. I am a huge, huge fan of magic realism (please see my love of Mark Helprin’s WINTER’S TALE—look another non-YA book!) and the fantastic elements in this novel are pitch perfect as metaphor for feelings and situations. Fans of Isabel Allende’s THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS might take a good look at this one.