The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Peach Blossom Spring
Peach Blossom Spring
A Novel
by Melissa Fu

Hardcover (15 Mar 2022), 400 pages.
(Due out in paperback Feb 2023)
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
ISBN-13: 9780316286732
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
Readers:
  

A "beautifully rendered" novel about war, migration, and the power of telling our stories, Peach Blossom Spring follows three generations of a Chinese family on their search for a place to call home (Georgia Hunter, New York Times bestselling author of We Were the Lucky Ones).

"Within every misfortune there is a blessing and within every blessing, the seeds of misfortune, and so it goes, until the end of time."

It is 1938 in China and, as a young wife, Meilin's future is bright. But with the Japanese army approaching, Meilin and her four year old son, Renshu, are forced to flee their home. Relying on little but their wits and a beautifully illustrated hand scroll, filled with ancient fables that offer solace and wisdom, they must travel through a ravaged country, seeking refuge.

Years later, Renshu has settled in America as Henry Dao. Though his daughter is desperate to understand her heritage, he refuses to talk about his childhood. How can he keep his family safe in this new land when the weight of his history threatens to drag them down? Yet how can Lily learn who she is if she can never know her family's story?

Spanning continents and generations, Peach Blossom Spring is a bold and moving look at the history of modern China, told through the story of one family. It's about the power of our past, the hope for a better future, and the haunting question: What would it mean to finally be home?

Origins

Tell us, they say, tell us where you're from.

He is from walking and walking and walking. He is from shoes filled with holes, blistered toes and calloused heels that know the roughness of gravel roads and the relief in straw, in grass. He is from staying each night in a different place, sometimes city, sometimes country. From roads that wrap around mountains and dip through valleys. From waterways shrouded in fog and mist.

He is from walking across China.

Tell us your memories, they say.

He remembers kerosene lamps burning low, the smell of woodsmoke, cold stone floors under his bare feet. Urgent voices, the rasping of coins, carts creaking at night. He remembers a sandalwood puzzle picture. One way up, there were one hundred monkeys. Turn it over, there were ninety-nine. How did that monkey appear and disappear? He is from this mystery.

Tell us more, they say as they nestle by his side. How did you come here?

He crossed rivers. He crossed oceans.

He carried a watch bought from a sailor, a letter to open doors. A suitcase, a packet of light blue aerogrammes, a single pair of wool socks.

He went towards the call of a beautiful country, a beckoning dream, a promise made of air. Towards wingbeats of birds, kaleidoscopes of seasons he'd never imagined before.

And now, they say, their eyes clear and voices playful, tell us a story.

To know a story is to stroke the silken surfaces of loss, to feel the weight of beauty in his hands.

To know a story is to carry it always, etched in his bones, even if dormant for decades.

Tell us, they insist.

To tell a story, he realises, is to plant a seed and let it grow.


Chapter 1

Changsha, Hunan Province, China, March 1938

Dao Hongtse had three wives. Their names are not important.

The first wife had the first son, Dao Zhiwen. This boy was too wild. He grabbed his first-son privileges with one hand and cast away his first-son duties with the other. He changed his name to Longwei and swaggered out of the house and into the streets. He gambled and won, then gambled and lost. Longwei loves tobacco, whiskey and women.

The first wife had two more children: a girl who grew into a sallow, thin woman whom no one wanted to marry, and a son who died at five months. With a heart bound by grief and feet bound by the old traditions, the first wife is now little more than a wraith lost in folds of opium smoke. She only ventures out of her chamber to refill her pipe and condemn the rest of the household.

Hongtse's second wife works hard. Her back is broad and her hands are rough. She lives in fear of the shrieks and howls of first wife. Hongtse doesn't love her, but he depends on her. Yet the second wife bore only daughters. Their names are not important. They married young and produced sons for other families.

His third wife was the favourite. Hongtse even loved her. She will be forever beautiful because she died in childbirth, bringing Hongtse his youngest son, Dao Xiaowen.

Dao Hongtse's business, Heavenly Light Kerosene and Antiques, has been passed down from father to son for generations. Kerosene is a good business: everyone needs heat, everyone needs light. Hongtse's customers are Nationalists, Communists, merchants, peasants, farmers. One day, Longwei will inherit the business and its responsibilities.

Up a narrow staircase, in a room above the kerosene shop, Dao Hongtse also trades gold coins, jade, antique carvings and hand scrolls. Easy to move, hard to trace, always valuable. He has trained Xiaowen in the art of discerning between that which is of lasting value and that which is of momentary delight.

Between his eldest and his youngest sons, Hongtse covers all possibilities. Where Longwei is street-smart, Xiaowen is book-wise. If Longwei offers bluster, Xiaowen articulates with a fine brush. What Longwei settles by force, Xiaowen negotiates. As the years pass, Longwei has only daughters, but Xiaowen has a son.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu. Copyright © 2022 by Melissa Fu. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. What purposes do Meilin's scroll stories serve throughout the narrative? What do they mean to Meilin? In what ways do they shape the person Renshu/Henry becomes?
  2. How do ideas from Tao Qian's poem 'Peach Blossom Spring' echo with larger themes in the novel? What was your reaction when Henry discovered how the original poem differed from Meilin's version? Why did Meilin change the story?
  3. What was your favorite fable in the novel? Was there one lesson that resonated with you more than the others?
  4. Languages are important in this book. How is language used both to bring people together as well as keep people apart?
  5. On p.89, Longwei tells Meilin, 'China has become a chessboard.' What does he mean? How does Meilin see things differently? Do you think either is right? Discuss how their different visions for China shape their choices throughout the novel.
  6. What were Longwei's motivations in switching the names on Renshu's visa application? Do you think what he did was wrong or necessary or maybe both?
  7. Early on, Meilin tells Renshu that 'regret is a heavy burden.' Later, she reflects that 'it's impossible to have complete conviction that you've made all the right decisions. No one is that lucky or that naive.' What regrets, if any, do you think the characters have?
  8. Are Renshu and Henry different people? How does taking on a new identity help Renshu? Does it also harm him?
  9. Henry and Rachel's relationship is the one marriage we see in the book of some duration. How does their relationship change and how do they change each other over the years?
  10. Discuss how the novel explores motherhood. What does a mother owe to her children? Is Meilin a good mother? Is Rachel? How is raising a child different during a time of great struggle—such as during a war? In what ways are their challenges the same?
  11. Why does Henry become paranoid living in Los Alamos? What do you think he is really afraid of? How does his fear affect Lily?
  12. Do you wish Meilin could have found a way to live in America? Would her life have been better there?
  13. What does Henry and Lily's trip to Taiwan mean for each of them? Does it change how they see themselves, their family, and each other?
  14. Why does Henry become obsessed with growing fruit trees? What does an orchard mean to him? What did it mean to Meilin?
  15. Towards the end, Lily says, 'I never realised that my father has such a nice smile.' What has made it possible for Henry to smile and for Lily to finally see it?
  16. Each of the main characters, Meilin, Renshu/Henry, and Lily goes on a kind of journey. For each of them, what is the journey? How are their journeys similar—and how are they different? What are the events that change them the most and how are they changed?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Little Brown & Company. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

A multigenerational saga about a Chinese family unsettled by war, and the rootless searching that often comes with a life defined by diaspora.

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Our First Impressions reviewers loved Melissa Fu's debut novel Peach Blossom Spring, about a family fleeing the Second Sino-Japanese War and the immigrant experience in America. Out of 36 reviews received, 34 rated the book 4 or 5 stars, with an average rating of 4.7.

What it's about:

Against a backdrop of war, political upheaval and human displacement, readers are introduced to Meilin and her young son Renshu. The story begins in 1938 when the family is forced to flee their home in Hunan Province and begin a long and perilous journey that ultimately ends in Taiwan. Faced with the violence of war, extreme poverty, betrayal and a country in chaos, one marvels at the courage and resiliency of Meilin and the talent and dedication of Renshu (Janet OP). Peach Blossom Spring tells us the story of a mother's struggles, hardships, sacrifices and hopes for her only son as they run for their lives from Changsha to, eventually, Taiwan. It also tells the story of Dao Renshu's immigration from Taiwan to the United States, his complicated transformation from Dao Renshu to Henry Dao and the issues that challenge him. And it tells the story of his struggles to understand who he is just as his daughter Lily later struggles to understand who she is and who she wants to be (Paula K).

Readers appreciated Fu's insight into family dynamics and inter-generational trauma:

Fu not only looks at the historical events, she also examines the consequences and generational impact of the trauma associated with the war, aftermath and political fallout. Sensitive subject matter is carefully handled. The passion the author has for this story is evident in her research and attention to detail (Mitzi K). It reminded me a bit of The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah in regard to the bonds of family and the choices you make and lengths you go to to keep them safe, along with questioning whether those choices turn out to be the right ones when you see the effects they have down the line (Gina V).

The novel covers elements of Chinese history that were unknown to many readers, and the author's particular view of that history was deemed enlightening:

All my life, I've only known mainland China as communist, but I never knew how that came about. Reading Peach Blossom Spring opened my eyes to the brutal history of China's war with Japan in 1938, the subsequent communist takeover, and the displacement of so many Chinese citizens to Taiwan and elsewhere (Diane S). This heartbreaking and inspirational novel enlightened me to a period of history I didn't know much about (Gina V). One understands in this novel that history is a very personal thing, that it evolves day by day, experience by experience, person by person. History is sights, sounds, food, and above all, stories. I know too little about the history of China, but reading Ms. Fu's novel inspires me to learn and understand more (Lynne L).

Overall, the reviewers thought Peach Blossom Spring an exceptional read and a great pick for book clubs:

I absolutely loved this book. Melissa Fu evoked a time and place I am wholly unfamiliar with by using language as delicate and precise as the artistry of the Chinese handscroll that figures so prominently in Meilin's story (Elizabeth VF). I thoroughly enjoyed reading Peach Blossom Spring and will recommend it to my many book-loving friends and members of my book club (Doris K). Characters were well-developed and realistic. I would recommend this book to anyone, but especially to book clubs (Sally H). This is a beautiful book, well worth reading. A great book for book clubs — lots of discussion material and lots of material for personal reflection (Marcia C).

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Shelf Awareness
Richly described...deeply compassionate...a haunting tribute to immigrant families and a gorgeous meditation on how stories can shape identity.

Kirkus Reviews
It is a weakness that the plot moves so fast, causing action to take precedence over suspense and nuance. The author plumbs the immigrant experience, illuminating a key slice of Chinese history from Japan's invasion to Mao's rise.

Publishers Weekly
[T]he author devotes long sections to each protagonist, slowing the frenetic pace to focus more on character development, which yields a stronger second half. The result is an affecting if somewhat scattershot tale of love, loss, estrangement, and heritage.

Author Blurb Christy Lefteri, author of The Beekeeper of Aleppo
I absolutely adored this novel about love and war, migration and belonging... . During moments of deep sadness and loss, there is also beauty - the beauty of enduring love, of identity, of hope. Melissa Fu portrays the time, the culture, the place and the struggles of this family so vividly, with nuance and color and life. Her writing is subtle and powerful, it stays with you, it follows you like the smell of the peach blossoms, it evokes emotions and questions and enlightens you. This is such a stunning achievement!

Author Blurb Georgia Hunter, New York Times bestselling author of We Were the Lucky Ones
A beautifully rendered meditation on the trials and triumphs of a family torn apart by war, Peach Blossom Spring left me pondering how the stories we choose to pass down have the power not only to define us, but to buoy us—to help us persevere through the most challenging of times.

Author Blurb Nguyen Phan Que Mai, author of The Mountains Sing
Magical, and powerful, Peach Blossom Spring brings to life the costs of wars and conflicts while illuminating the spirit of human survival. Inspired by her father's real-life experiences and her determination to comprehend her family's past, Melissa Fu has gifted us with a timely, moving, and universal novel.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Karen S. (Orlando, FL)
A Beautiful Story
Melissa Fu presents a beautiful story of family, love, resilience, and determination through the eyes of a young mother and her son. This historical fiction takes us across China, Taiwan, and the United States over the course of 50 years. The book offers an insightful look at the struggle to survive while escaping political upheaval and to begin a new life in another country.

Ms Fu has written a wonderful and moving story. I was drawn in immediately and did not want to put the book down. Through her words, I could see each family member and the landscape that they traveled. I highly recommend Peach Blossom Spring, especially for a book club discussion.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mary O. (Boston, MA)
A Chinese Chronicle
An outstanding historical debut spanning three generations in modern China. At times heartbreaking, at times uplifting. You are confronted with war, misfortune and issues of immigration. We are always a product of our history and the choices we make. A MUST READ!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mary B. (St Paul, MN)
Peach Blossom Spring
This was an incredible book. From the very beginning it held me in. The story is divided into sections by years, starting in 1938 and ending in 2005. Each section could have been its own novel. I was left wanting to know more about each time frame! The story revolves around a multi generational family starting in China in 1938. The central characters are forced to flee their home for a new life. This happens several times, always leaving them vulnerable. The novel deals with love , loss, inner strength, and the ability to move forward no matter what the challenge. The story at times is heartbreaking, but hopeful, indicative of the stark reality of refugees and migration. Given the events of the word today makes this story very relevant. Along with all the historical background it would be a great book for book clubs or an individual reader.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Nancy E. (Sturgeon Bay, WI)
Peach Blossom Spring
From 1938 to the present day, this is the story of a mother Mailin and her son Renshu as they struggle to stay ahead of the Japanese army as they move through China, cross to Taipei and eventually to America. The events of history guide the characters on their journey and strengthen them. Mailin and Renshu are very likable for their courage. Woven throughout the story are folktales that enhance the novel.

As a Pearl Buck fan, I enjoyed the book immensely.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Lisa O. (Brewster, NY)
Peach Blossom Spring by Melissa Fu
This debut novel took about 75 pages to draw me in, but after that, I couldn't put it down. This debut was an excellent historical fiction/multigenerational family story. I enjoyed learning about the effects of the Japanese invasion and subsequent Chinese Civil War, along with the Asian migration experience in the United States during the last half of the 20th century. Meillin, her son Renshu/Henry and his daughter Lily were all very well written and complex characters. The power of storytelling and finding "Home" are strong themes throughout the novel. The main criticism I have is that the ending felt a little rushed. I would have liked to see more about Henry and Rachel's relationship as well Overall, this was a solid 4.25 stars for me.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Carol R. (North Mankato, MN)
A Story of Resilience
There is so much I learned from this multi-generational story but mostly it portrays resilience during periods of war, poverty, betrayal and loss for the Dao family as they are forced to start over numerous times. Meilin is the main character and mother to Renshu (Henry, his American name). It is a story of immigrants and the enormous loyalties to family and history. I learned so much about the displacement of Chinese to Taiwan and other places and the struggles of these immigrants to adjust and belong in a new culture. This would make a great book club discussion and help us all understand what it means to be an immigrant and suffer the loss of one's cultural identity.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Marcia C. (Jeffersonville, PA)
Peach Blossom Spring
The Introduction to Peach Blossom Spring speaks to us about the origin of storytelling in a culture which places great value on the telling of stories. Melissa Fu has, in very beautiful prose, reminded her readers about how stories spring to life and how they then take on a life of their own.
This book follows a single Chinese family through decades, beginning with the occupation of China by the Japanese in 1938 and ending with the blossoming of a small peach orchard in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2005.The underpinning of Peach Blossom Spring is a series of stories told by a Chinese mother to her young son—stories that are meant to instill values which will help him throughout his life no matter the difficulties confronting him.
In this her debut novel Melissa Wu proves herself to be a gifted storyteller in her own right. This is a beautiful book, well worth reading. A great book for book clubs—lots of discussion material and lots of material for personal reflection.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Elizabeth V. (Bellbrook, OH)
Beautiful Writing, Moving Story
I absolutely loved this book. The author, Melissa Fu, was able to evoke a time and place I am wholly unfamiliar with by using language as delicate and precise as the artistry of the Chinese hand scroll that figures so prominently in Meilin's story. Even Henry, whose inability to move beyond his own fears was frustrating at times, was rendered with such sympathy that you are always aware of how his difficult past was impacting his present. A really moving glimpse into a different culture.

more reviews...

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Chinese Handscrolls

The family at the center of Peach Blossom Spring carries a handscroll with them as they flee their home in the Hunan Province of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The scroll illustrates a fable, the significance of which grows and changes for main character Renshu over the course of his life. The handscroll has been a form of art and narrative storytelling in China since the Spring and Autumn period (770-481 BCE). They were initially made with bamboo or wood, but during and after the Eastern Han period (25-220 CE), silk and paper became the predominant materials used. Earlier handscrolls feature ink drawings and writing, but during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), watercolors became the primary medium. Over the years, Chinese handscrolls went from being used primarily for documentation, i.e., a medium for writing down and sharing religious texts, to an art form with aesthetic, cultural and ceremonial significance.

Handscroll depicting a mountain landscape with tree and Chinese character calligraphy

The type of handscroll described in Peach Blossom Spring is a horizontal scroll mounted on a wooden roller that is gradually unrolled to reveal a narrative, similar to turning pages in a book. These handscrolls can be up to several feet in length, depending on the narrative being conveyed, and are unrolled from right to left. When rolled up, they are often bound with a silk cord with a jade or ivory fastener. The narrative depicted may be entirely pictorial, or may include painting and written words, carefully inscribed with calligraphy.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers insight into the experience of looking at a handscroll: "[S]eeing a scroll for the first time is like a revelation. As one unrolls the scroll, one has no idea what is coming next: each section presents a new surprise." Unlike a painting hanging on a wall, handscrolls like these are generally not kept on display, but stored in their rolled up state. Each time it is unrolled and viewed is like a new experience, quite different from looking at a painting that is always on view and might blend into the furniture of a room as one becomes accustomed to seeing it. (This also differentiates the handscroll from the hanging scroll, which is vertical rather than horizontal and designed to be hung on a wall.) In some cases, handscrolls contain colophons — notes left by the artist and/or viewers, usually expressing their thoughts and opinions upon encountering the images and narrative on the scroll. During the Ming Dynasty era (1368-1644 CE), artists would gather in salons to create and share handscrolls collaboratively, adding colophons to one another's work.

Handscrolls have been prevalent throughout East Asia, but are most associated with China and Japan. The art form arrived in Japan along with Buddhism in the eighth century. In the video below, Melissa Fu discusses the significance of the handscroll in her novel while showing an example of a hanging scroll.

"Twin Pines" handscroll by Zhao Mengfu circa 1310, courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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