Peach Blossom Spring
By Melissa Fu
Little, Brown: March 15, 2022
383 pages, $28.00
Peach Blossom Spring, Melissa Fu’s confident and accomplished debut, is the story of four generations of one family over 60 years. When Japan invades China in 1938, Meilin and her four-year-old son, Dao Renshu, flee their home in central China, along with her brother-in-law’s family. Her husband is missing in action and presumed dead. Her life torn apart by war, she attempts to rebuild it in the next city but is forced to leave again. She and Renshu end up in Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists have migrated with the hope of returning to mainland China after the Communists are defeated.
The first half of Peach Blossom Spring is an alternately harrowing and heartwarming depiction of refugee life. Although it’s not quite a page-turner, there are several dramatic escapes, miscommunications, and separations. Through it all, Meilin shepherds Renshu physically and emotionally, making use of a family heirloom scroll with key scenes from Chinese folk tales to reassure Renshu and help him make sense of their experiences. They settle into a working-class existence in Taiwan, with Renshu remaining the center of Meilin’s life; he is all that is left of her extended family, which was separated while fleeing the mainland. The ensuing years see both Renshu and Taiwan grow impressively.
The second half of the book is the story of Renshu, now renamed Henry Dao, as he attends graduate school in Chicago in the 1960s and settles into life in the United States. He marries an American classmate, obtains a highly desirable job as a physicist at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico, and welcomes fatherhood with the birth of daughter Lily.
Family and political issues complicate his otherwise contented life. How can he take care of his mother like a good Chinese son if he can’t arrange her immigration to the U.S.? Who can he trust among the many Chinese scientists, whose loyalties are split between the Communists and Nationalists? He is wary of jeopardizing his visa and his life in America. As Lily grows, she realizes she is not like the other students, most of whom are white, with a handful who are full Chinese. She doesn’t fit in with either group. Her curiosity about her father’s past and her family places the taciturn Henry in a bind. He wants her to forget about China and Taiwan, to just be an American, something he aspires to be by obtaining citizenship. But she is not easily put off. Although they share an interest in science when she is young and wants to make her father proud, her passion eventually migrates to other subjects. Their relationship suffers as Lily asserts her independence while attending college in Texas and one of the bonds that kept them close begins to unravel.
Melissa Fu weaves these concerns into a nearly seamless tapestry of lives shaped by war and immigration and the power of stories told and untold. Meilin, Renshu/Henry, his wife Rachel, Lily, and the many supporting characters are skillfully depicted through credible motivations, individual quirks, and realistic dialogue. The narrative spell was only broken a handful of times, when Fu summarized in a paragraph or two the achievement of some long sought-after objective and jumped ahead in the timeline.
Peach Blossom Spring is a satisfying novel that begins as a riveting story of war and refugee life and then shifts to a domestic drama that explores immigration, culture, and heritage. Meilin and Henry are traumatized by their experiences and trying to determine who they really are and how they should live. Lily needs the missing pieces of her family history to feel at home in her own skin. Book lovers will be gratified to see that stories play a key role in solving these dilemmas, including the Chinese legend of Peach Blossom Spring.
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