“It was her fortieth birthday. Madame Wu sat before the tilted mirror of her toilet case and looked at her own calm face. In her mind she was comparing it with the face she had seen in this same mirror when she was sixteen. On that day she had risen from her marriage bed early, for she had always been an early riser, and putting on her new chamber robe she had come into this same room and had taken her place before the toilet table. She had sat in her quiet fashion, easily motionless, and had gazed at her young face.”
Madame Wu is the perfect wife in one of the most respected rich households in China. The Wu household has stood proudly for centuries, taking care of its farms and tenants, and for the past 24 years, Madame Wu has been the one making sure everything has run smoothly. From the raising of her sons to the hiring of the proper respectable servants, from checking the household accounts to pleasing her husband in every way, she has succeeded. Now, on her 40th birthday, Madame Wu throws everything into chaos. She announces she will be retiring from living with her husband and will choose for him a second wife. Despite her family’s horror and protest, she finds a simple and sweet country girl to take her place in her husband’s bed. She moves to her late father-in-law’s chambers and proceeds to spend her free time reading, thinking, and getting to know herself. But when her son begins to learn English from a foreign priest in order to please his fiancee, Madame Wu finds her beliefs about herself and her values to be greatly challenged by a man of God who she has begrudgingly come to respect. All of her pre-conceived ideas about the roles of men and women will be re-examined and what happens as a result will change the house of Wu forever.
Pearl S. Buck’s novels are in a very select group of authors whose works I save for when I’m desperate for a fantastic piece of literature. She manages to just brush the line between gentle reading and thought-provoking. I finish every novel with a sense of fulfillment and a sense of challenge to utilize what I didn’t even realize I was learning. This book struck me especially. It not only looked at how women can pigeon-hole themselves into the role of wife and housemother but a way to change that. It challenged me to take a deeper look at how I am working to become a better wife to my husband, whether the things I do are for myself or for him or for both of us or for the simple reason that wives are expected to do them. Sometimes I berate myself for not running my household the way that I think my mother (in law or my own) would want me to, or the way that my friends expect me to. It’s hard to strike a balance in between what works and what challenges, and as women I think we sometimes get too caught up in being perfect and failing rather than finding fulfillment in the simple things we can do to please God and our families.
But I don’t want to digress away from a review and into my own theories. If you enjoy historical fiction, especially Chinese, or stories about families – I highly recommend the works of Buck. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and was a very prolific author. There are novels enough of hers for you to find something just as thought-provoking for yourself as this was for me.
“Pavilion of Women” was published in 1946 and written by Pearl S. Buck.