Currently Reading Mingmei Yip’s Song of the Silk Road

I saw this brilliant green book in the haphazard book bin outside Safeway, not a usual book destination for me. The Safeway price was hardly competitive so I remembered the name to order it online despite a few of my personal misgivings: (1) written by Chinese woman with no English name, (2) a depiction of a girl on cover is wearing a (exotic!) cheungsam, and (3) “Silk Road” being in the title. The book jacket details how a young Chinese woman is promised a windfall when a mysterious woman gives her a list of tasks to complete in China on the Silk Road. At her first stop, she meets the young American with whom she feels a “powerful connection”. While Lily Lin is 29, Alex is just legal at 21. To add to the schtick, Lily’s life in New York involves being a struggling writer with an unfinished first novel, moonlighting as a waitress, and having a torrid affair with her married former professor who tackily calls hes something like “Asian enchantress”, which is just as bad as “China doll.”

Song of the Silk Road is Yip’s third novel and was published March 29, 2011. Reading synopses of her previous novels, Peach Blossom Pavilion and Petals From The Sky, and glancing at their covers, it looks like Yip has at least a three-book deal with her publisher that wants to brand her with those covers and she’s a bit of a sensational romance writer, at least in English. Perhaps she fills some Asian romance novel genre, but why haven’t I heard about this novel on the AA blogs?

Author Yip has a PhD from Sorbonne in Paris, which is why her second novel is set partly there. At her personal/author website, she claims to be a novelist, children’s book writer and illustrator, qin musician, painter, and calligrapher (!!). I can definitely understand having a diverse set of interests, but an author with her third English novel should not be allowed to maintain such a throwback of a website! It hurts my senses.

What about the book? I regret that even as I was reading it and approaching the halfway point at a snail’s pace, I was thinking it was a colossal waste of my time. A large component of the mystery is who her aunt really is who is directing her from afar on this intriguing but utterly inplausible scavenger hunt. That’s it, it was impossible to suspend my disbelief for this tale. But the book now is a part of my proud library so I had to make it to the end.

On the positive side, I was exposed to far west Chinese cities and regions that I had not before read about like the northwest province of Xinjiang, its capital Ürümqi, and the Taklimakan Desert. Lily’s landlord in the Xinjiang village is lovingly described and she’s the supportive and fun matronly girlfriend you love to pieces. I also liked the wise herbalist, Lop Nor, with the tragic history until he got all caught up in the “love” drama (see below). History and the symbolism behind Chinese artifacts (although none of the latter were probably real) could be gleaned from the narrative. Description of the travel pitstops and vistas, albeit mostly cleaned up of the true grit and horrors, made me yearn to visit the region before it opens up entirely, while it is still relatively untouched by commercialism and media. Although I couldn’t suspend my disbelief about this mysterious scavenger hunt for a moment, I still felt a little intrigued, quite set up by the author to wonder such things as how she would be able to seduce a monk, where Alex disappeared off to, and whether there will be a nasty surprise when Lily tries to collect her money at the end of the hunt.

What didn’t I like? An unbelievable plot with details so loosely tied together. At first Lily is something of an empathetic lost soul–orphaned, not quite living her dream–and the affair with the professor seems entirely natural and believable. Enter the China trip and the fantasy kicks up ten notches. Alex is young, perfect, overly eager, barely legal, and very virile. Am I just in the wrong mood to read this? I even went in knowing it was my summer fiction trashy novel. Then somewhere between her “mature” and deep affection for Lop Nor and finding that monk to seduce, I started to hate her character. Free-spirited, artistic, a sensitive soul who can perceive deeply, someone who can’t be tied down to one love–I didn’t have empathy for the character. It could be any of I’m prudish about Chinese people having sex (probably not), erotica supposedly befitting the ancient Silk Road, or back-to-back fantasies and men (okay, definitely). It could also be (and reviews support it) most stilted dialogues, especially the amorous scenes, and generic devices like tired references to Alex as a “desert lover” and his howls during intercourse. Please, just take me to the next Silk Road destination! On top of that, and this is a personal preference, I get antsy when the occult enters–I don’t enjoy visions, spirits, or ghosts–and for me, it served to make Lily even more flaky and unlikeable. Sometimes a strong reaction to a character is a win for the author, but in a romance novel where the character is supposed to garner the reader’s support and have you championing for her, perhaps Yip had failed.

Often, I will read a book and add it to my library, thinking to myself that I will read it again. But with new books and stories constantly released, I haven’t revisited many books recently. I think this book falls in the category where I’m sure I won’t read it again. And, further unfortunately, I am not tempted to read her previous novels or future ones unless there is a huge change in scenery and plot.

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