For Anna, the narrator of Bo Caldwell's richly lyrical and vivid first novel, growing up in the magical world of Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s creates a special bond between her and her father. He is the son of missionaries, a smuggler, and a millionaire who leads a charmed but secretive life. When the family flees to Los Angeles in the face of the Japanese occupation, he chooses to remain, believing his connections and luck will keep him safe.
He's wrong. He survives, only to again choose Shanghai over his family during the Second World War. Anna and her father reconnect late in his life, when she finally has a family of her own, but it is only when she discovers his extensive journals that she is able to fully understand him and the reasons for his absences. With the intensity and appeal of When We Were Orphans, also set in Shanghai at the same time, The Distant Land of My Father tells a moving and unforgettable story about a most unusual father-daughter relationship.
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The Distant Land of My Father begins like a fairy tale: "My father was a millionaire in Shanghai in the 1930s.... On the day he was born, in the province of Shantung, neighbors presented my missionary grandparents, the only Americans for miles, with noodles in great abundance and one hundred chicken eggs, in honor of their son's birth." To the young Anna Schoene, life in Shanghai is indeed magical. There are servants, a luxurious villa, a beautiful mother who smells like Chanel No. 5, and a young, handsome, polo-playing father. Unfortunately, her father is also a smuggler and speculator who loves his freewheeling life more than anything (or anyone) else. Despite warnings, Schoene refuses to leave Shanghai even after the Japanese invade, and his wife and child retreat to Los Angeles; later, he survives imprisonment and torture only to once again choose Shanghai over his family--this time with the Communists moving in.
Bo Caldwell's sepia-toned evocation of 1930s Shanghai is lovely and physical, and given the built-in drama of its setting, this first novel ought to have the vividness of a classic movie. Yet the characters remain oddly flat while world events swirl around them. Great chunks of historical exposition seem largely undigested, while Schoene's final change of heart fails to ring true. In a sense, however, these shortcomings are beside the point. The Distant Land of My Father is above all a tragic romance, albeit one with an unusual love interest. Schoene is so besotted with Shanghai that his wife and daughter are scarcely as real to him as the city itself. --Mary ParkAbout the Author:
Bo Caldwell has published short stories in numerous literary magazines. Her nonfiction writing includes a long-running series of personal essays in the Washington Post Magazine. A former Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford University, she lives in Northern California. This is her first novel.
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