Crystal Z. Lee calls her debut novel, Love and Other Moods (Balestier Press), a love letter to Shanghai, and it clearly is, but it is also a delicious way to learn about the largest and most cosmopolitan city in China.
In this setting, we follow a cast of expats and third-culture millennials searching for love, purpose, themselves, success, and — not just tangentially — a good time. Naomi, fresh from a sudden break-up with her boyfriend (after she had relocated from the U.S. to be with him!) needs a job and a place to live. Newlyweds Joss and Tay are negotiating a new marriage and family challenges, but they find time to help Naomi try to situate herself in her new city. Then there’s Logan the hedonist and finally, Dante, who has come back to his homeland after spending years overseas.
Naomi, our plucky protagonist, serves as a catalyst for much of the story. Her errors in judgment seem to surprise her as much as they do us as readers, but they only make her more human and relatable. The overarching love story is engaging, and the conflicts of cultures, dreams and reality are absorbing, but readers may find that the immersion in the city of Shanghai is just as rewarding as the carefully crafted plotlines.
THE SIGHTS, SOUNDS — AND FLAVORS — OF SHANGHAI
Lee is an enthusiastic foodie eager to share her love of China’s exotic delicacies like hairy crab, bird’s nest, Macanese Serradura pudding, or spare ribs soup. Characters savor long, celebratory meals described in such detail that readers may have to pick up the phone and order Chinese food delivery.
There’s history to learn — about, among other things, the Qing Dynasty; the Rape of Nanjing and the resulting, enduring animosity between the Chinese and the Japanese; the quarrels over Taiwan; and the fabled omnipotence of Mao Zedong. All of this blends seamlessly into the plotline, rich descriptions and dialogue.
The story is rooted in the multilingual world that Lee’s characters live in — the same one Lee herself lives in. Words and phrases from different Chinese dialects show up all through the book, Chinese characters are spelled out, and subtle language differences explained.
YOUNG PEOPLE FINDING THEIR WAY HOME
Lee teases her readers with descriptions of tourist attractions, the quaint but seedy alleyways in Old Shanghai, the diverse architecture, shanties and soaring skyscrapers. Readers come away with an intimate sense of a city that has the confidence of modern China and the elaborate fabric of ancient times.
However, none of that ever gets in the way of a wonderful story of families grappling with love and change and young people finding their “home.” Her characters juggle loyalties and cultures with their thirst for freedom and security, sometimes having to choose between filial piety and being in love or telling the truth.
Lee’s debut presents us with an author who is much more than a compelling storyteller. She’s a talented writer, a historian, a linguist, a lover of architecture, and a cultural ambassador.