One of the things I love the most about historical fiction is the transcendent nature of the reading experience. Really good historical fiction should transport you, immersing you in a new culture, time, and place. Lisa See's Lady Tans's Circle of Women does just that. From the first pages, readers will find themselves steeped in the culture and social customs of Ancient China. Her masterful use of historical research and character development elevates this story to soaring heights, making it a must-read 2023 historical fiction!
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According to Confucius, "an educated woman is a worthless woman," but Tan Yunxian—born into an elite family, yet haunted by death, separations, and loneliness—is being raised by her grandparents to be of use. Her grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China, and she teaches Yunxian the pillars of Chinese medicine, the Four Examinations—looking, listening, touching, and asking—something a man can never do with a female patient.
From a young age, Yunxian learns about women's illnesses, many of which relate to childbearing, alongside a young midwife-in-training, Meiling. The two girls find fast friendship and a mutual purpose—despite the prohibition that a doctor should never touch blood while a midwife comes in frequent contact with it—and they vow to be forever friends, sharing in each other's joys and struggles. No mud, no lotus, they tell themselves: from adversity beauty can bloom.
But when Yunxian is sent into an arranged marriage, her mother-in-law forbids her from seeing Meiling and from helping the women and girls in the household. Yunxian is to act like a proper wife—embroider bound-foot slippers, pluck instruments, recite poetry, give birth to sons, and stay forever within the walls of the family compound, the Garden of Fragrant Delights.
How might a woman like Yunxian break free of these traditions, go on to treat women and girls from every level of society, and lead a life of such importance that many of her remedies are still used five centuries later? How might the power of friendship support or complicate these efforts? Lady Tan's Circle of Women is a captivating story of women helping other women. It is also a triumphant reimagining of the life of a woman who was remarkable in the Ming dynasty and would be considered remarkable today.
I won't lie. Somewhere in the first 25% of this book, I began to feel lost in the details. Up to that point, the author had focused on world-building, detailing everything from the way people dressed and moved to the meticulous art of foot binding. I was overwhelmed with details and missing the point, unsure if I should continue.
Not long after I started listening to the audio while reading the ebook, and that seemed to do the trick! I was able to fully engross myself in Yunxian's story without getting so lost in the rich language of See's story-writing. Eventually, the pace picked up, making it hard to put the novel down, surprising considering I'd nearly DNFd the book.
Yunxian is an admirable character, and her plight to care for the women in her mother-in-law's household (and beyond) despite the disapproval she faces is compelling for any lover of feminist fiction. And See's descriptions of ancient Chinese customs, traditions, and values added depth and dimension to the story that elevated the experience. I learned so much from this novel, which is exactly what I want my historical fiction experience to be.
Most importantly, the friendship between Yunxian and Meiling was heartfelt and true. The cast society described in the book set the women apart, yet they found a way to stay connected and support each other in the darkest moments of their lives. I really appreciated the way each of the characters helped her friend to achieve her professional goals, something unheard of at that time.
Will everyone love Lady Tan's Circle of Women? Likely not. It's highly character-driven and detail-oriented, with little action until the latter half of the book. But if you're looking for a well-researched, immersive historical fiction book, then Lady Tan should definitely be on your TBR. Be prepared for the richly woven tapestry of characters, world-building, and slower-paced plot, but it's a worthwhile adventure!