“Half a Lifelong Romance” is broad in its scope and exceptionally moving in its characterizations, painting a picture of life in China in the 1930s.
The novel, by Eileen Chang, was originally published in serialized form in Shanghai in 1950, under the name “Eighteen Springs (Shiba chun).” A translated U.S. edition recently was released.
“Half a Lifelong Romance” introduces a broad cast of characters as they struggle to breach generational divides and familial pressures in their search for love and genuine connection.
Shen Shijun, an engineer, falls in love with his co-worker Gu Manzhen, whose family has been forced to put personal dreams and desires aside to survive financially. Both families attempt to coerce Shijun and Manzhen into arranged marriages and careers to gain some semblance of security in a turbulent societal hierarchy. Chang effortlessly leads readers through a maze of deceits, lies and threats that endeavor to pull the two apart in a novel that never loses focus or suspense.
Chang’s legacy as one of the most important Chinese writers of the 20th century is fully realized in this work. Through comprehensive and incredibly detailed descriptions of everyday life in 1930s Shanghai, “Half a Lifelong Romance” manages to evidence broad societal truths through daily realities.
Chang’s characters’ tragic yet sometimes comical attempts to navigate unfair expectations and maintain illusions of proper manners resonate with all readers regardless of background. These experiences are even reminiscent of the struggles of Jane Austen’s protagonists.
The characters face anxieties over how to address one another after familial or professional realignments; they try to follow their desires without offending or disrupting; ultimately, they try to balance their own wants and needs with the pressure to help their families.
There is a vast amount of detail in this novel, and readers are asked to juggle plots, know many characters, and endure countless daily moments. Sometimes, these day-in-the-life details can feel tedious. Chang included moments of brilliantly simple observations, though, that help readers understand why so much detail is included.
For example, after countless instances of children deceiving their parents, one of the protagonists sees her own mother doing the same to her, and Chang delivered: “Parents, when they get older, can be a little afraid of their own children.”
Between learning about a certain place in history and caring deeply for the troubles of Chang’s fully developed characters, the reader’s efforts are repaid in full.
Ian Swalwell is an intern with the University of Missouri-KansasCity’s Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program.
“Half a Lifelong Romance” (400 pages, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, $12.33)