‘All the Flowers in Shanghai’ poignant, heartbreaking

Growing up in China in the 1930s was difficult at best, but for one Chinese girl the changes going on in the world at that time would be reflected in her own life.

Xiao Feng is a young girl living in Shanghai during an era when old traditions often clash with modern ideas. Feng is a shy girl who spent most of her childhood with her beloved grandfather and the servants.

All her mother’s dreams for family advancement were pinned on her elder sister, so Feng was generally left alone to discover the beauties of the world, including all the flowers in the gardens of Shanghai. Feng was content to spend her time in the shadow of her opinionated and forceful mother and the more beautiful, worldly Sister.

The family’s hopes are centered around Sister making a good marriage, but when she dies unexpectedly, it is an unprepared Feng who is thrust into Sister’s arranged marriage. After being forced into the prominent Sang family, she builds up such resentment that she cannot even see that her husband is trapped as much as she. He is a confused young man who is being pushed by his family to produce an heir and has as little knowledge as Xiao Feng.

When Feng’s first child is born and is a daughter instead of the hoped-for son, she does the unthinkable and sends the child off to be raised by peasants, telling her husband that the child was born dead. Feng then spends the rest of her life regretting her decision and trying to make amends.

With war looming, Feng’s life changes drastically and she begins to spin out of control. All she can do is stand by and watch everything dissolve.

Written in the form of a letter, “All the Flowers in Shanghai,” the debut novel from author Duncan Jepson, is a poignant, heartbreaking story that will resonate with mothers. While Jepson often skims over large periods of time historically, the story moves along quickly and reflects the huge changes China went through and how the people learned to cope.

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