Review: The Painter from Shanghai

Smart and beautifully written

Thank you to Lisa (TLC book tours) for sending me a copy of The Painter to read/review as part of her virtual book tour.

Most of you know that historical fiction is one of my favorite genres so I was very excited to have the opportunity to read this book. The Painter from Shanghai is Jennifer Cody Epstein’s first novel.

This is the story of Pan Yuliang, a famous painter from China. I didn’t know her name until reading this book and was surprised to learn about her life. When reading stories like this I often wonder how the individual had the drive to push forward, it’s quite amazing when you think of the time in history. The storyline is similar to Memoirs of a Geisha and I was reminded of The Blue Notebook when reading that Yuliang is sold into the life of prostitution.

Yuliang finds a way to survive and adjust to life as best she can when she is rescued by a man who falls in love with her. It’s only after all of this that Yuliang discovers her talent and her legacy starts to unfold.

Click here to listen to an interview
Click here to read an interview on getting published

Author Q&A:Tell us a little about yourself: I'm a Brooklyn-based writer who spent close to a decade in journalism (mostly in Asia) and now write fiction and raise my two daughters as a job...which, to be honest, I enjoy much more :) I grew up on the East Coast, have masters degrees in Fiction (Columbia's MFA program) and International Relations (Johns Hopkins). I am also an adjunct professor at Columbia.

Do you write daily? I try to!

What was it like getting your first novel published? It was amazing. I've wanted to write novels pretty much from the time I started to read fiction, and had spent so much time doing "other things" as a young adult that by the time I finally got around to doing it (in my 30's) I wasn't at all sure I could pull it off. Researching and writing Painter was a long, murky but amazing process, particularly because I had two children along the way. I honestly don't remember big chunks of it--I'll sometimes re-read the novel and think "Did I really write that??? When? How???" But the moment when I got my first copy was just magical. Not quite as intense as holding my newborns for the first time....but right up there.

What do you think of the electronic book (kindles and such)? I'm of a mixed mind on it. On the one hand I'm such an unabashed bibliophile that I find the concept of reading a novel without the sensory aspects of page and cover somewhat disturbing-not unlike the way I felt about switching from vinyl to CDs. There's a texture that I think goes missing. On the other hand, the switch to electronic media has made music so much more accessible to everyone that it's hard to argue it hasn't been good for the general listening public; and I do love the way I can find new songs and plug them into my playlists with the click of a mouse. I suspect that in the end, electronic books will prove to be a similar boon to both writers and readers--though personally, I'll always choose the old-fashioned variety when I can (or so I say now, when I don't have a single album left from my old collection....)

What is one tip that you can share with aspiring writers? Not to give up!! It can be an incredibly discouraging and isolating process, and you are always going to have people telling you either you can’t do it, or you are doing a lousy job. You need to build a thick skin about your work (not easy for most of us, particularly writers!) and keep in mind that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

What are you reading now? The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard.

Lastly, share one or two of your all time favorite novels read, excluding classics: The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy, and Atonement, by Ian McEwan.

Just for fun:Favorite Season: Summer
Morning or night: Night
Favorite ice cream flavor: Coffee
If you could visit anywhere in the world, where would you go: Italy

Type: Historical Fiction, 408 pages, Trade paperback

Epstein's sweeping debut novel, set in early 20th-century China, fictionalizes the life of Chinese painter Pan Yuliang. Born Xiuquing, she is orphaned at a young age and later sold into prostitution by her uncle, who needs the money to support his opium habit. Renamed Yuliang, she becomes the brothel's top girl and soon snags the attention of customs inspector Pan Zanhua, who makes her his concubine. Zanhua sets her up in Shanghai, where she enrolls in the Shanghai Art Academy and early on struggles with life study, unable to separate the nude's monetary value from its value in the currency of beauty. She eventually succeeds, winning a scholarship to study in Europe. But when she returns to China, itself inching toward revolution, the conservative establishment is critical of Yuliang, balking as she adopts Western-style dress and becomes known for her nudes (one newspaper deems her work pornography). Simmering resentments hit a flashpoint at a disastrous Shanghai retrospective exhibit, and the fallout nearly destroys Yuliang's artistic ambition. Convincing historic detail is woven throughout and nicely captures the plight of women in the era. Epstein's take on Yuliang's life is captivating to the last line.

Reviews:“A luminous rendering of a woman whose work was her life.” - Booklist

“An imaginatively reconstructed life, carries an erotic charge as it lingers over descriptions of innocent beauty despoiled.” - Boston Globe