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Why is a Shangai Baby by Wei Hung a failed novel? (book review)


I read this novel a long time ago, but as my memory is pretty good (alas only when it comes to books), it shouldn't keep me from writing an objective review. What is my personal story with Shangai Baby? I remember that back then I kept seeing this novel everywhere and its cover being insanely beautiful, naturally made me want it even more. I felt a great sense of satisfaction when I got it in my hands. The opening to this novel looked promising and the prose seemed lyrical. I was all set and ready to go. I divided into story, but very soon I found myself weary of certain things and concepts. As the novel progressed, my feelings became increasingly mixed. Some elements of it seemed like it was written by a sexists to me ( I know that author is a she and that only makes it worse). There were moments when I hated the narrator/protagonist  (Coco is not very likable at all, feels like the author created her only to celebrate herself) and couldn't have cared less for what happens to her, but then there would come a passage that I would like. What was my final opinion? I gave this novel two stars on goodreads (grated via my old account, I haven't uploaded a new "this" review there yet). Two stars out of five means that it wasn't a complete disaster, but not a good book either. 

“Her life was like a burst of wild, flowing Chinese calligraphy, written under the influence of alcohol.” ― Zhou WeihuiShanghai Baby

To be honest, I think that much of the praise this novel got is undeserved. Its raise to popularity has to do ( I strongly believe) mainly with the fact that it was banned by the Chinese government. It's human nature, when we hear that something was banned, we assume there must be something to  it. Not in this case, trust me on that. I actually agree with what the Chinese government had to say about it, and I think that the degree of shallowness of this novel can possibly be morally corruptible.  I can see why the some in USA would jump at change to publish it, because you know, they're not too happy about China being the new world superpower. I think you can count on getting yourself publish if you write bad things about the country you originated/immigrated  from in a country that wants to paint your original country in a bad light. Politics. However, our author doesn't really paints China in a bad way (not in a good one either but she does make some interesting and honest reflections),  she mostly uses her protagonist as her ego trip and that's this novel's ruin. 


The protagonist is this Shanghai girl nicknamed Coco whose idol is Coco Chanel. You could say that the two have something in common--- While Coco Chanel was famous for her relationship with a Nazi officer (and her work for the Nazis, yes, Coco Chanel was actually a Nazi spy and collaborator), Coco in the novel fantasizes about her German lover dressed in Nazi uniform. Yes, there are so many things to make you sick in this one. That one was the deal braker for me.  Maybe she was trying to reference Sylvia Plath (her daddy song) or something- it did not work out. Now, that I think about it, I doubt she would had read Sylvia Plath.  I know that was mean, I'm sorry- but is what I thought. Anyway, back to the story. Coco is beautiful but she is also cultured and intelligent writer, or so we're lead to assume, not really witnessing her genius in the text, but oh well. Coco is cheating her loving but impotent drug addict boyfriend with this German guy and it creates the love triangle much of the story is focused on.  One really annoying detail: the epigraphs at the beginning of every chapter had nothing to do with the chapter and just sounded silly. It is like the author believed she will be a good writer if she quotes famous writers. It doesn't work that way baby, someone should tell her so. In addition, if you're looking for hot scenes, you won't find any. The sex descriptions felt dull and rather demeaning to women (again I know this book is written by a women, but that only makes it worse). 



I was thinking of giving it one star again but then there were little bits I did like. Things that were written about the writing process for example, they did make some sense.  That's what makes me mad, I suppose. I have this gut feeling that this writer is capable of so much more and I'm almost angry at her for not trying it, for choosing the easy way and writing a book that is basically a white man fantasy about Asian woman. She has potential, I can feel it and that is why I can't honestly say I hate this novels. I can see its flaws (there are many of them and I pointed some in this review), I can  say that the novel wasn't, on the whole, a success but I can't say that at times it didn't feel like good writing. There are moments when there is beauty in the prose of Wei Hui. I did like some descriptions and metaphors. It's tricky to write semi-autobiographical novel, especially if you can't control your ego- I had a feeling that this could be the case. I think that the main problem of this novel is that the protagonist Coco lacks depth. Coco is supposed to be an artistic soul with a liberated sexuality but she comes off as being selfish and uncaring about anyone but herself.

“On the surface we're two utterly different types. I'm full of energy and ambition, and see the world as a scented fruit just waiting to be eaten. He is introspective, romantic and for him life is a cake laced with arsenic, every bite poisons him a little more. But our differences only increased our mutual attraction, like the inseparable north and south magnetic poles. We rapidly fell in love.” ― Zhou WeihuiShanghai Baby

I did feel that it had potential. The main problem is that there is no real dept to it, it's more or less a shallow book. Not as shallow, trivial and boring as The Sex and the City but not far off. It is not unreadable but I was disappointed. Wei Hui might have some talent, but she didn't manage to show it in this novel. Perhaps she had set to write something controversial, but all she managed to do was to shock. Writing for shock sake, now that is not literature, is it? I can't say that I would recommend this novel to somebody, I really can't. I don't regret reading it, but I can't recommend it.  I think our Mei Hung might be more interested in writing a book that will sell, than in writing a book that could be classified as literature. Seems like she got what she wanted, a book that has no literary significance but has sold quite a few copies. Good for her! Doesn't mean you need to waste your time with it.

A random photo of my art, in no way inspired by the  novel because the novel didn't  inspire me at all.

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