The 2,500-page, 18th-century classic, Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, is regarded as China’s most important work of fiction. Pauline A. Chen (Peiling and the Chicken-Fried Christmas, for middle-grade readers) tackles the daunting task of adapting the revered original text, and her literary bravado engenders a stunning success.
Chen chooses three women to tell the story of the prominent Jia family: controlling granddaughter-in-law Xifeng, dutiful cousin-by-marriage Baochai, and naive granddaughter Daiyu – the only Jia by blood – who enters the sprawling ancestral compound after a two-generation estrangement. Chen well realizes “[a] woman doesn’t have any choices in life” in 18th-century Beijing with her future determined by family to be a wife, concubine, or serving slave, and thus imbues these women with rich inner lives.
Verdict: Fans of historical fiction who appreciate resonant details, unexpected intrigue, and multigenerational plotting will find this work irresistible. With just the right blend of highbrow literary (Chen’s pedigree includes Harvard, Yale Law, and a Princeton PhD in Chinese literature) and guilty summer pulp, Chen just might put this 18th-century classic on 21st-century bestseller lists.