Seventeen-year-old Chen Ming is a studious, violin-playing first-year student at a university in Guangzhou, fresh off a farm into the big city. Miao Yan is worldly and cynical, an at-ease flaunter of boyfriends, and the oldest undergraduate at the university at twenty-four. An unlikely friendship is struck when the two cross paths.
Ming, whose world has hitherto been defined by the classes she attends and the books she reads, is fascinated by Yan’s insouciant familiarity with all things forbidden (which in Ming’s case include smoking, drinking alcohol, and dating). In turn, Ming’s intellect, her ability to find contentment in her books, and her stable family background are the stuff of envy for Yan. The two girls are soon drawn into a fervent, consuming relationship, engendered at least in part by the hothouse intimacy that closed institutions often foster. (Ming, sharing a room with three other girls in an all-female dorm, with an eleven o’clock curfew and a warden to monitor incoming phone calls, compares her life to existence in an army barrack.)
California-based Fan Wu’s debut novel February Flowers would seem, at the first glance, to conform to every cliche concerning First Novels. There’s the coming-of-age theme, the first-person narrative (Ming’s), the protagonist whose background mirrors the author’s, the confessional tone etc. etc. But the coincidences are superficial; this novel soon reveals itself as a fresh, original work that strikes a fine balance between intimacy and restraint — and shatters several stereotypes along the way.
As narrated by the adult Ming, her younger self was more than a little in love with Yan. But the seventeen-year-old is too innocent to realize what her feelings might mean. Sex education is all but unknown in the China of the early nineties (the period when the novel is set.) One of Ming’s roommates, for instance, believes frequent masturbation leads to an early death. Upon seeing a picture in a porn magazine of two naked women kissing, another roommate decrees that homosexuals “have a mental illness” and guesses the women are American. Forced to admit (from the photographic evidence before her eyes) that the women are indeed Asian, the roommate decides the women must be Japanese, for the Chinese newspapers have informed her that “only capitalist countries have homosexuals.” Little wonder Ming is confused and nervous about her friendship with Yan.
Too often, in first novels, the author seems to have decided to tell all he has to say, or perish in the attempt. Wu, however, chronicles the evolution of the girls’ relationship with a delicate hand; the reader is subtly made aware of Ming’s gradual awakening (sexual and otherwise), and can only guess, even as Ming does, if there’s a lesbian undertone to the relationship between the girls. The characters’ sexual preferences, however, are but one facet of their multi-dimensional relationship. The author’s control of her subject matter is impressive, capturing perfectly the claustrophobia and obsessive passion that youthful friendships can assume without ever rendering Ming’s concerns as self-absorption.
February Flowers does have a few hiccups, the most glaring being a rushed ending that’s very much at odds with the measured pace of the rest of the tale. But the book’s flaws are easily ignored in the face of its many pleasures, including a vivid, insightful picture of the complications and contradictions of China in the nineties. The novel’s ultimate appeal, however, lies in the universality of its themes — the pain and pleasure of growing up, and the discovery of sex and the accompanying wonder and fear; few will not recall their own adolescent pangs while reading these pages.
This review originally appeared in the Asian Review of Books a while ago. I’m also entering this one for Color Online’s Color Me Brown Challenge. Color Online is a great blog that focuses on women writers of color. They have reviews, quizzes and prizes and much more…do check them out.