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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Little Reunions

Eileen Chang

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To purchase Little Reunions

Title: Little Reunions
Author: Eileen Chang
Genre: Novel
Written: (1976) (Eng. 2018)
Length: 325 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Little Reunions - US
Little Reunions - UK
Little Reunions - Canada
Little Reunions - India
  • Chinese title: 小團圓
  • First published posthumously, in 2009
  • Translated by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz

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Our Assessment:

B : strong character-/relationship-portraits but too loosely (un)structured

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. B 4/2/2018 Weike Wang

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he novel resists tracing any one particular relationship in a focused way. Eileen Chang (1920-95) uses broad brush strokes to take the reader through decades of a crumbling family. (...) Often, the narrative feels too sprawling, too speedy, and major lines of tension are lost. Chang’s prose reads more like a stream-of-consciousness recounting of events than a cohesive story. I yearned for fewer characters and more control." - Weike Wang, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Little Reunions centers on Julie Sheng, and the outlines of her life as presented here are similar to those of author Chang. The novel begins when she is at school in Hong Kong, in her late teenage years, before the Japanese invasion, and while it advances loosely chronologically the story often slips back and forth between different periods in her life, from early childhood to her emigration to the United States and second marriage, years after the war ("Over a decade later in New York" begins one brief big leap ahead). Compounding the time confusions, Julie is also the kind of grown-up youngster who, at seventeen:

did not look seventeen. She sometimes felt she was thirteen and at other times thirty.
       With Little Reunions jumping back and ahead to beyond when she is actually those ages, the picture of her remains somewhat blurred.
       Julie is the daughter of Rachel and Ned, who divorce. Rachel spends little time with her daughter, and becomes involved with many other men, while opium-addicted Ned gets marries again, to a woman named Jade Flower; Julie lives with them for sometime in Shanghai, but isn't particularly close to them either. Names and relationships can be a challenge here -- an eight-page 'Character List'-appendix proves very handy -- as characters are often referred to by their place in family hierarchies ("In general, calling an acquaintance by their given name was considered conceited""), and not necessarily by their obvious designations: even Julie refers to Rachel and Ned not as 'Mother' and 'Father' (much less 'mom' and 'pops' ...), but rather Second Aunt and Second Uncle. And so, for example, Julie's Third Aunt (Judy) reminds her about her mother: "Your second aunt has more than a hundred names" (which, mercifully, are not all used here ...), while when Ned gets married Julie learns:
     "Your second uncle is getting married," Judy told her. "The eleventh daughter of the Keng family -- Seventh Aunt's family made the introduction."
       While much of the story takes place during the time of the Japanese occupation of China and the World War II, the war itself is almost casually treated. In part, it is because Julie is so accustomed to the conditions:
Up to now, she had lived her entire adult life in the shadow of the Second World War. War, though brutal, seemed permanent to her, always on the horizon of her life. People fear momentous change, so it was natural for her to want it to continue.
       The conditions are inescapable -- "Julie didn't like modern history, but now modern history was pounding on the door" -- but Julie tends towards isolation, keeping to herself. She has some friends, but does not fit in particularly well anywhere in her Hong Kong boarding school, and she also only occasionally finds herself in the embrace of family; Judy is the adult figure who is generally closest to her, while mother Rachel is often absent -- and often distant when she is close by. Little Reunions is very much about a mother-daughter relationship, Julie trying to come to terms with her mother (and Chang presumably trying, in this way, to do the same with hers in this obviously autobiographical fiction) -- but among the few way she thinks she can is by saving enough money to try to pay Rachel back for all the money she has spent on her -- money being easier to understand and exchange than love in this family.
       The other major relationship in the novel is between Julie and Chih-yung. Married -- to two women, more or less, no less -- when he and Julie first become involved, he also works for the Japanese under the occupation, meaning he has to go into hiding after the war. Julie remains fairly devoted to him -- and they do marry eventually -- but it is also a relationship as marked by absence as togetherness.
       At least for a while, Julie's relationship with Chih-yung is about as stable as any in this novel, even though he takes up with other women as well. Meanwhile, Rachel goes through any number of lovers -- and abortions -- never managing any more permanent relationship after her failed marriage. Elsewhere, matchmaking is the norm -- though Julie manages to avoid this; still, as someone who: "yearned for romances like those she saw in the movies", Julie is inevitably disappointed.
       Sex is problematic too -- not just per se but, for Julie, also simply physically. Julie and Chih-yung struggle with this, including at one point in one of the more vividly described scenes:
     "We really have to get this right today."
     He kissed her incessantly, trying to make her feel at ease.
     But it became even more hilarious -- it felt like the rhythmic pounding of an earthenware urn.
     "Ow, it's no good, I can't do it," she almost blurted out, but she knew it would have been in vain.
     The mechanical pounding of the earthenware urn felt endless. She felt she was tied to an instrument of torture pulling her in two directions to rend her asunder. She could sense the torturers' patient determination.
     More pounding, more pulling, no end in sight. Suddenly she felt she was suffocating and almost vomited.
       With its steps back and forth in time, Julie's progression isn't as clear as it might be in a more traditional Bildungsroman -- but then her life is, in many ways, very static throughout, with few opportunities for change and evolution. While a very strong student, circumstances make it difficult for her to pursue an academic career -- and she's not that interested in one anyway. It turns out that she is a writer -- though there's little sense of her becoming one here: it's presented more or less as a fait accompli somewhere along the way.
       Her mother has her doubts (like she does about pretty much everything Julie does), pointing out: "You have no real life experience. You can't just rely on imagination". Yet Little Reunions reads almost like Julie's (i.e. Chang's) revenge, a novel full of recalled experiences and little imagination, holding up a mirror for the difficult (and now long-dead) mother-figure.
       It's not surprising that: "She always felt like a foreigner -- even in China -- because of her isolation", and Little Reunions is a bit of a wallow in that feeling -- as even Chang allows near the end (even as she's also quite serious):
She was fluent in the language of suffering, it being her first language.
       Oddly paced, Little Reunions is something of a stream of episodes and stark memories from Julie's life -- mainly her childhood through her early twenties -- and the closest relationships she had. But in leaping back and forth the lost chronological continuity also undermines any sense of development, with Rachel remaining as frustrating and befuddling to Julie in her death as when Julie was a young child, for example. Despite jumping back and forth, Little Reunions doesn't have the feel of a snapshot novel either: there aren't abrupt cuts from episode to episodes and instead past and present bleed into each other in almost timeless continuity, emphasizing how fundamentally unchanging everything and everyone is.
       Little Reunions reads very much like a coming-to-terms -- with past, and parents, and lovers -- novel, but one in which the material hasn't quite been shaped into a cohesive whole. Chang gets it all out there -- and much of it is fascinating and well-presented -- and it even reads smoothed-out -- it does, in its way, flow. But story-wise it remains too unwieldy. It's not really surprising that it wasn't released, in this form, when Chang completed it, and that it was only finally published posthumously. What's left is an interesting and often engaging work that feels unfinished -- a pre-novel, of sorts, with all the material assembled and the details polished, but not quite fit together properly yet.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 February 2018

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Little Reunions: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese-American author Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing; 張愛玲) lived 1920 to 1995.

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