Thursday, May 01, 2008

Eudora LYNN reviews Tony PARSONS's My Favourite Wife (2008)


My Favourite Wife
By Tony Parsons
(HarperCollins, 384pp)

What’s the view like when Western eyes cast their glance Eastwards?

ONCE AGAIN, a title and a book cover fooled me. This one had me going, “Ah, a guy writing humorous chick lit. This is going to be a romp in the polygamy park with multiple wives and multiple mothers-in-law.”

But My Favourite Wife is as far from a hilarious romp as it gets. It’s about very serious subject matter in a serious city, and the writing style is dead serious and dead literary.

Which is not to say it isn’t a good read. It’s a great read. Tony Parsons has a way of writing that makes you see Shanghai in all its glory and cruelty—but it just wasn’t what I was expecting.

In order to enjoy this book, you have to cast all your expectations based on the book cover out of the window.

My Favourite Wife is an observer type of book. You know, the Paul Theroux kind of road book that tells you about a city and its way of life in beautiful sentences with plenty of metaphors and angst, as seen through the eyes of the observer.

In this case, the city is Shanghai and the extremely involved observer is a stoic British expatriate lawyer named Bill.

Fresh from London where he can’t clock enough billable hours to sustain a new family, he has moved to Shanghai where he is told a whole new world of opportunities will open up.

He will be made partner in a couple of years and, meanwhile, he will be put up in the most luxurious of apartments, given a chauffeur and all the perks of an expat’s hardship life in a Third World country.

When the book opens, Bill, his wife Becca, and their daughter Holly arrive in contemporary Shanghai with its gleaming buildings and teeming populace.

They are immediately exposed to the beauty and harshness of it all, and like all Westerners, form their own opinions and judgments about things.

Bill observes his neighbours, a group of young women being kept as mistresses by rich married men—some local, some foreigners—in Paradise Mansions, and immediately sums them up as “whores.”

His wife has another opinion. “How can a woman steal another woman’s husband like that?” she ventures pointedly, many times.

Of course, you know that Bill and Becca’s lives will be turned upside down ... and indeed they are. Holly has a sudden asthma attack, and Becca has a “I really can’t take the foreignness of this country at all” type of moment, and demands to go back to London.

Bill’s supposed to stay in Shanghai, earning money, until such time he can go home. But Bill gets lonely and strikes up much more than a friendship with the beautiful JinJin Li. Naturally, Bill is sucked into JinJin’s world and he begins to see the other side of the coin. Such stories rarely have a good outcome ....

I’m reading this from an Asian point of view, so Bill and Becca and their various European and Australian expat friends come off as shocked at Asian culture: our lack of egalitarianism, the practical way we view life (to survive, the Chinese women must do everything they can), our seeming lack of emotions (we have emotions, we just don’t feel the need to display them all the time).

I found myself piqued at the way they view us and not shocked at all by the descriptions of life in China.

Yes, we know there are babies still being thrown into trashcans, the farmers have their land ripped away from them, and there are women selling their bodies to earn a living—we Asians have come to accept all of it as part of our lives.

This is a very interesting book because it’s a Westerner’s point of view of contemporary Asian life, and there should be more books written about us, from any view.

I fully recommend they change the cover for the second edition, though.

Review first published in The Sunday Star of April 27, 2008

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