Thursday, April 30, 2020

Letter from Peking by Pearl S. Buck

Misplaced delivery
Perhaps more than any other writer who’s won the Noble Prize, Pearl S. Buck is often accused of being a “romantic” novelist. That’s not meant as Romantic in the sense of Victor Hugo or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but rather as romantic in the sense of Harlequin Romance novels and the Hallmark television network. While in past reviews I’ve always defended Buck against such criticism, it is harder to make a case for her 1957 novel Letter from Peking. This is the 15th Buck novel that I’ve read, and it is one of her least successful and more melodramatic books.

Set in the early 1950s, Letter from Peking is narrated by Elizabeth MacLeod from the Vermont family farm she inherited from her parents. She is separated from her husband Gerald, who is in Peking, China. Gerald was born in China, the son of an American man and a Chinese woman. Elizabeth and Gerald met at college, when he was studying at Harvard and she at Radcliffe. After marrying against the wishes of her parents, they lived together in Peking where they had a son, Rennie. When war broke out and the communists started taking over China, Gerald, the president of a university, decided to stay in Peking to do his duty to his institution and his country. He sent Elizabeth and Rennie back to America, however, because being white Americans they would not have been safe from the communists’ hostility towards westerners. In the opening pages, Elizabeth receives a long-awaited letter from Gerald, in which he tells her that he loves her very much, but this will be the last letter she receives from him. Although neither divorced nor widowed, Elizabeth must deal with the fact that her loving marriage may be over for good.

The first half of the novel flashes back to the couple’s early courtship in an era when Americans didn’t want their daughters marrying a Chinese, and the Chinese didn’t want their sons marrying an American. Elizabeth describes how even though they shared love at first site, each had to come to terms with the other’s foreign-ness. The second half of the novel deals mostly with son Rennie having to come to terms with his own Chinese heritage, which is not looked upon favorably in America. One frustrating aspect of the novel is that although one sentence of Gerald’s letter is revealed in the first few pages, you have to wait another two-thirds of the book to find out the entire contents of the letter and the reasons behind his giving up on the marriage.

What I dislike most about Letter from Peking, however, is the narrator’s voice. Although this book is intended for adults and deals with adult issues like marriage, sex, parenthood and race, for some reason Buck chose to write the narrative in short, choppy sentences and a vocabulary suitable for a fifth grade reader. That might be appropriate for a poorly educated Chinese farmer whose second language is English, but it is certainly not appropriate for a blue-blooded Vermont woman who went to Radcliffe. One thing I like about Buck’s writing is that she doesn’t indulge in verbal gymnastics or pretentiously throw around ten-dollar words. Her prose is always clear and articulate, but I don’t recall it ever being as dumbed-down as it is here. In addition, Elizabeth McLeod just really isn’t all that likable or sympathetic. Her narration makes her sound haughty and conceited, and one pities her son for having to put up with such a domineering mother.

Letter from Peking is by no means a terrible novel, and like any of Buck’s books, you do learn a thing or two about Asian culture from a writer who lived in China for many years. This is a better novel than some of the potboilers she wrote under the pseudonym of John Sedges, like The Townsman or Death in the Castle. Compared to great novels like The Good Earth or Dragon Seed, however, this book is a disappointing soap opera.

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