My sister-in-law recommended The Good Earth after she read it (having found it on one of those "100 best books you must read" lists). I must admit to not knowing much of anything about Chinese history or culture, nor about the author. So I went into this book with a clean slate in terms of expectations.
The writing style is clean and simple while being complex at the same time. The sentence structures were particularly complex with very long meandering sentences. I found myself wondering if the sentence and paragraph style/structure was something of a commentary on Chinese existence as much as the plot and characters.
The characters are intriguing if a little flat at some times. The main character, Wang Lung, is a vivid character with a lot of inner reflection on how life works and how things should be. His wife, O-Lan, is more distanced from us but still has vital importance and as such is very interesting.
The overall story follows Wang Lung's life over many years…from late youth (his wedding) all the way through his death. There is a lot of exploration of Chinese traditions, family structures, social structures and life in general. I've read some commentary on the book that praises the accuracy of the level of detail for early 1900s China. To me it was both refreshing and enlightening to see many similarities between agrarian China and agrarian America. While there are certainly many differentiators, I found myself reflecting on books set around farm/land workers in America or Britain and finding many similarities of tone and feeling.
The uniquely Chinese elements were naturally foreign to me but the author did a great job of providing adequate detail and description to help me understand them easily. I appreciated that these descriptions were not merely expository but came in through natural commentary, internal monologue or action. It enabled me to feel like I was learning something about China without sitting through a social studies lecture.
The story arc certainly had its depressive and frustrating moments. It was heartbreaking to see Wang Lung's livelihood fall apart due to changes in the weather. It was harsh to see him scrape for survival. It was just as (or even more) heart wrenching to see his behavior once times changed and he was able to return to his farming and become very successful. The numerous plot twists that tore at his family made for very interesting reading. I found myself alternately feeling bad for Wang Lung and despising the things he was doing. As the pages turned, I moved between pitying him and praising him.
While this isn't a book I had heard of before and isn't necessarily the type of thing I would seek out, I was glad to have it recommended and I'm glad to have read it. It is a well written book that provides an educational overview of Chinese life while being emotionally stirring and intriguing. It provides many great illustrations of the pain and suffering felt while scraping by at the edge of poverty and striving to overcome hardships…coupled with the difficulties of balancing familial respect with personal self-worth and pride.
I can say that this book certainly wouldn't be for everyone. It's not offensive (at least as far as I can tell with my westernized ideals) but the content and tone could be a barrier to some readers. Comparing it to Western literature, I could see it in a similar vein with John Steinbeck or Thomas Hardy. To me, it felt similar in tone and content. If you're interested in Chinese culture and life, or find yourself intrigued by the realistic hardship of life in the late 1800s/early 1900s, give The Good Earth a try. I think you'll enjoy it.
4 out of 5 stars
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