In order to explain the first scene in this memoir, Adeline Yen Mah has filled the opening chapters with lusty images of an emerging nation amid burgeoning commercial & international life at the end of an empire & the start of a revolution. Falling leaves, with its endearing cover photo, touching chapter titles & sprinkling of Chinese language characters, is about her family in the French Concession of Shanghai; about her Buddhist grandfather’s generation and how he first meets her grandmother at their arranged marriage; about their children, among whom are Adeline’s father & his sister, Aunt Baba.
It is after Adeline’s birth, during the Japanese encroachment around Tianjin in 1937, that her mother succumbs to puerperal fever leaving five children motherless & the household rudderless. While Grandfather Ye Ye & Aunt Baba & the nameless servants tend to them all, they watch as Father seeks & marries a beautiful Eurasian woman whom they must call Niang, a most formal title for a mother.
From here on Adeline Yen Mah’s memoirs take on a dour & malevolent aspect. In her scrupulous honesty, Adeline muses that Niang must have been happy in the beginning, giving her stepchildren English names, setting the tone of a fashionable household & relegating elders to back rooms & financial subservience. Niang forces siblings to choose sides, spy on each other & curry her favor. This most beautiful of stepmothers singles out the infant girl with particular venom, although beloved Ye Ye & treasured Aunt Baba are able to provide, for the first few years at least, a loving shield and some powerful if painful teachings.
Until Niang banishes Adeline to boarding schools. I survived that particular isolation myself, so I found Mrs. Mah’s descriptions devastating as well as healing. How achingly familiar were those dreamy, homesick, segregated years, except for the interesting times she lived in, post World War II China & Hong Kong.
Not even Niang’s giving birth first to the favored son & then a daughter, destined to teeter on the edge of unwantedness herself, softens this stepmother’s heart. You must watch as the father abdicates his sense of justice & I found myself screeching at someone to notice how forlorn & unwanted were this father’s father and sister. How sickening the skill with which these children learnt to connive, taunt & betray. And then Grandmother dies and Grandfather Ye Ye is desolate. Meanwhile the Japanese invasion recedes & Communism arrives.
I was glad to see this unwanted girl’s stubborn, enduring courage blossom under the concern & care of her grandfather & aunt, even as they all wilt beneath the punitive rule of their archetypal foe. Adeline Yen Mah manages to recount, without a scrap of self-pity or rancor, the years of betrayal & persecution until her scholarship, literally transports her to England & medical school. Her writings gave me so many insights as to how this quiet, thoughtful child must have infuriated that spoilt, shallow stepmother. I could not help but notice the similarities between the squabbling and persecution in this small household & what was happening in the greater nation beyond.
I was sighing with relief when Adeline escapes to the edges of her stepmother’s influence where she thrives. Knowing the England of the 1950s I was fascinated & familiar with her experiences. Coming after Niang’s extreme prejudice, the bigotry of the English seems petty. I followed her adventures with growing gladness even as my heart dropped with every dreaded return to the withered core of her family.
When she makes her way to America & falls for a handsome man I became nervous. Beauty is as beauty does & why, I thought, would someone with Adeline’s relationship training, know how to choose a good man? In California, however, she gets the opportunity. She gets a chance to mature, a safe place to raise her children and practice her medical profession. In fact, she becomes, to my naughty delight, the one resounding success in her family.
When Adeline copes with the death of her father, then her stepmother’s cruel will, letters of persecution, sibling reunions and predictable betrayals, I get the distinct impression her reactions are beyond her control. It was heartbreaking to watch this respected physician, wife & parent, relegated to the youngest member of her family, bending over backwards, to help, appease and cajole her siblings out of their sourness. And then President Nixon opens up China to Western visitors.