Summary and book reviews of The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harrison

The Binding Chair

or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society

by Kathryn Harrison

The Binding Chair
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2000, 312 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2001, 352 pages

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Book Summary

May escapes an arranged marriage in rural nineteenth-century China for life in a Shanghai brothel. By turns shocking, exquisite, and hilarious.

In poised and elegant prose, Kathryn Harrison weaves in The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society a stunning story of women, travel, and flight; of love, revenge, and fear; of the search for home and the need to escape it. Set in alluring Shanghai at the turn of the century, The Binding Chair intertwines the destinies of a Chinese woman determined to forget her past and a Western girl focused on the promises of the future.

Beautiful, charismatic, destructive, May escapes an arranged marriage in rural nineteenth-century China for life in a Shanghai brothel, where she meets Arthur, an Australian whose philanthropic pursuits lead him into one scrape after another. As a member of the Foot Emancipation Society, Arthur calls on May not for his pleasure but for her rehabilitation, only to find himself immediately and helplessly seduced by the sight of her bound feet. Reforming May is out of the question, so love-struck Arthur marries her instead and brings her home to live with him, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two girls, Alice and Cecily. In Alice, May sees the possibility of redemption: a surrogate for a child she has lost. And it is to May that Alice turns for the love her own mother withholds. But when the twelve-year-old is caught preparing her aunt's opium pipe, she is shipped off to a London boarding school, far from the dangerous influence of the woman who will come to reclaim her and to control the whole family.

The Binding Chair unfolds among scenes of astonishing beauty and cruelty, in a lawless place where traditions and cultures clash, and where tragedy threatens a world built on the banks of unsettled waters--from the bustling Whangpoo River to the lake of blood in the Chinese afterworld. By turns shocking, exquisite, and hilarious, The Binding Chair is another spellbinding literary triumph by the writer whose work Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times has called "powerful and hypnotic."

APPRENTICESHIP

The gatepost, stuccoed pink to match the villa, bore a glazed tile painted with a blue number, the same as that in the advertisement. Please inquire in person. Avenue des Fleurs, 72.

A hot day, and so bright. Sun flared off windowpanes and wrung sparks from freshly watered shrubs. One after another, applicants paused at the locked gate, considered its wrought-iron flourishes and the distinctly self-satisfied hue of the residence glimpsed through its bars. They checked the number twice, as if lost, hesitated before pushing the black button in its burnished ring of brass.

When the houseboy appeared with a ring of keys, his severely combed hair shining with petroleum jelly, they ducked in response to his bow and followed him through the silently swinging gate with their heads still lowered, squinting dizzily at the glittering crushed white quartz that lined the rose beds along the path.

"Won't you sit down?"

May received them in the sunroom. Behind her ...

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Plot Summary

As the 19th century waned, China began to buck Western Imperialism, Russia was experiencing a revolution, and the nations of the world inched toward the first global war. With these epic events as the boisterous backdrop, Kathryn Harrison has crafted an ironic, lyrical, shocking novel about the secret lives of women, the universal search for home, and ultimately, the power we have to direct the course of our own lives -- and the lives of those we love.

The center of The Binding Chair is May Li -- an upper class Chinese woman who, as a child, was subjected to the ancient ritual of foot binding. Exotic and beautiful, complex and compelling, May Li's childhood was consumed with preparations for marriage. May ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

Wall Street Journal - Gadi Taub

After three successful novels and a controversial memoir of her sexual relationship with her father...1997's The Kiss....Kathryn Harrison steps outside the realm of ultimate transgressions and total devastation with this deeply humane novel.

New York Times Book Review - Claire Mussud

A resonant, elaborately constructed novel, rich in incident, bustlingly peopled, often surprisingly funny.

New York Observer

Kathryn Harrison’s previous novels have already established her as an exceptionally, almost ridiculously gifted writer, whose cool, well-crafted sentences conceal their emotional message until some small detail–a sigh, a ripple of water–tips the author’s hand. In The Binding Chair, she has managed to resurrect the illicit–a remarkable achievement in the Age of Consent–and to mark again her thundering talent and her twisted sensibilities.

Publishers Weekly

This is her best work to date, an intricately and elegantly constructed narrative about intersections of character and fate, history and chance, and the ironic, tragic fulfillment of hearts' desires.

Reader Reviews

J.Landon

Brilliant, and add on to 'memories of a geisha'.

Louise Jolly

Big Disappointment
After having read Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, I was familiar with the age old torture of foot binding performed on young girls in early China. A year long process that I couldn’t imagine having had to endure. Poor May had to endure ...   Read More

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