All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson is set in 1930s Shanghai and is told by Xiao Feng as she writes down her past, beginning with the courting of her beautiful sister who has been spoiled by her parents.  Her mother’s ambitions lie with her sister, and Feng is on the sidelines watching her sister be paraded in front of other families with prominence in society and wonders where their ambitions will lead.  The prose is easy to read and captures attentions easily with its bright colors and very descriptive settings, but in many ways, the characters initially seem cliched with the older sister demonstrating her importance over her younger sister and treating her poorly and the younger sister simply accepting the treatment.  However, this is a story about Feng and her relationship with her grandfather as much as it is about the ambitions and corruption of a family and its members when disappointment strikes.

“I hope that what I have written in these rough pages of cloth will show you how we were so bound to tradition and history that we could not see what was so obvious and that though I have always loved you, I never understood that love is nothing unless it is expressed.”  (page 2 ARC)

Feng is very naive about the world around her and the traditions that families use to live their lives, but some of the fault for that lies with her parents and her grandfather who sheltered her from the obligations of women in Chinese society.  Her parents focused all of their attentions on her sister and her grandfather kept her in the dark about the realities of life and treated her more like a boy who would have any number of opportunities.  Jepson’s story is like many others about Chinese families with a naive young girl thrust into a married life she does not want and does not know how to navigate.  Feng is transformed into First Wife, and as such, she learns to command staff and even her husband as she holds the family’s fate of having a male heir in her hands.

Readers will see a desperate woman who wants to control her own fate by any means necessary, and unfortunately ends up transforming herself into a corrupt woman with little joy and many regrets.  Jepson’s characters are more like caricatures, with the overbearing father-in-law and mother-in-law, the pliable husband with no backbone, and the servant maid who does as her mistress tells her regardless of the consequences.  Jepson loses some of the pizazz of his writing once the bustling city streets and beautiful gardens fade into the background of the secluded Sang house; readers feel cramped inside the large home’s walls, much like Feng does.  In this way, Jepson has created a very specific atmosphere and controlled environment for his characters to navigate.

All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson is an engrossing tale that has been told a number of times, but his story will keep readers turning the pages.  There will be times when they will shout at Feng to grow up and stop being so naive, but at other times they will shake their heads as she makes regretful choices and begins to care about the most superficial things in life, abandoning the girl she once was.  Its a quick read, but there is a lack of depth in characters and the story seems like one that has been told several times.  However, it is entertaining and enjoyable giving readers a glimpse of a changing China.

About the Author:

Duncan Jepson is the award-winning director and producer of five feature films. He has also produced documentaries for Discovery Channel Asia and National Geographic Channel. He was the editor of the Asia-based fashion magazine West East and is a founder and managing editor of the Asia Literary Review. A lawyer by profession, he lives in Hong Kong.

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  1. I loved when you said, “this is a story about Feng and her relationship with her grandfather as much as it is about the ambitions and corruption of a family and its members when disappointment strikes.” Child/grandparent relationships are unique, and the Chinese culture is an interesting setting to explore this.

    Interesting review!

    • The more I thought about the change in the language, the more I understood the reason behind it. I liked that aspect of the story; it was executed well. Child-grandparent relationships are very unique. I really liked that aspect of the story as well.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this for the most part even if it didn’t turn out to be a favorite for you. Thanks for being on the tour Serena!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Heather. I liked it well enough. I finished it and didn’t hate it! I wanted more from it is all.

  3. I’ll be reviewing this one in a few weeks and I’m really looking forward to reading it. I’ve been seeing differing thoughts on it so I’m curious as to what I’ll think of it.

  4. Really nice review — very fair and honest. You highlighted what I found problematic but lifted what worked as well. V nice!

  5. I am supposed to be reading this one soon. I have seen quite a few average reviews so I will have to keep that in mind in terms of managing my expectations.

  6. I’ve seen several reviews similar to yours, so I think I will pass on this one. At least you were able to like it despite its flaws.

    • I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be. I think you’d like it if you’re looking for a quick, predictable read.

  7. the bookworm says

    This sounds really good, even if the characters lack depth, I think I could get into the storyline. I do enjoy reading about this culture and setting.

  8. I like to read about that time and culture, so this sounds good to me, even if the characters are like caricatures.

  9. It sounds like you didn’t let Feng get to you like she did to me. I really wanted to enjoy this one a bit more but I just couldn’t. I loved your well-written review!

    • I think I just found her to be very typical of characters portrayed during this time period….and the relationships she had were also similar. While she had some depth, the others did not.