Book Review: The Red Chamber by Pauline Chen

The Red Chamber The Red Chamber by Pauline Chen


Review copy provided by publisher

Little Brown (Hachette), September 2012

 Synopsis- In this lyrical reimagining of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, set against the breathtaking backdrop of eighteenth-century Beijing, the lives of three unforgettable women collide in the inner chambers of the Jia mansion. When orphaned Daiyu leaves her home in the provinces to take shelter with her cousins in the Capital, she is drawn into a world of opulent splendor, presided over by the ruthless, scheming Xifeng and the prim, repressed Baochai. As she learns the secrets behind their glittering façades, she finds herself entangled in a web of intrigue and hidden passions, reaching from the petty gossip of the servants’ quarters all the way to the Imperial Palace. When a political coup overthrows the emperor and plunges the once-mighty family into grinding poverty, each woman must choose between love and duty, friendship and survival.

In this dazzling debut, Pauline A. Chen draws the reader deep into the secret, exquisite world of the women’s quarters of an aristocratic household, where the burnish of wealth and refinement mask a harsher truth: marriageable girls are traded like chattel for the family’s advancement, and to choose to love is to risk everything.

Review- The Red Chamber is an exceptionally written family drama that spans from 1721- 1736 in Beijing that explores the undercurrents of love, loss, self-gratification, betrayal and hope of those who reside in the Jia estate. Inspired by the original Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, Chen brings to life the strong women in the household during a time where women were severely oppressed. Marriages were arranged by the parents; women were not encouraged to have an education and must never lose face in a household where everyone has secrets and everyone knows everyone’s business.

Lady Jia is the matriarch of the family; she is relentless at progressing the family forward in society and doesn’t allow sentimentality to impede any decision. Despite the control she expels over the family, it is the men in the family who have access to education, work and concubines. The Red Chamber explores life from the viewpoints of three remarkably different women: Xifeng, Baochi and Daiyu.

Xifeng is a very difficult character to like; she’s selfish, punitive towards the servants and fanatical about money. I did really sympathise with her though, she’s married to Lian who treats her horribly and after three years of marriage without an heir he takes her lifelong maid and best friend Ping’er as his concubine (second wife). She quickly falls pregnant and Xifeng’s status in the family is shaky, leaving her humiliated and bitter.

Another difficult to like character, Baochi is the prototype daughter of Mrs Xue who Lady Jia wishes to wed to her romantic grandson Baoyu. Baochi really doesn’t have any true emotional ties within the Jia family, she does have an attraction to Baoyu, but beyond this her feelings are quietly hidden away.

It was Daiyu who was the heart of the story and whom I most connected with. At seventeen she arrives at the Jia mansion as a last request to her late mother and enters a family and lifestyle to which she is unfamiliar with. Her conduct and opinions give away her southern roots and she is quickly outcasted by Lady Jia who senses the instant spark between Daiyu and her cousin Baoyu. Daiyu brings life to the family; she is young and fanciful and dares to hope that she can marry for love not duty.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I was completely absorbed in this novel and whenever I put the book down I was thinking about the characters and what their fate would be. It’s by no means an uplifting story but it did evoke emotion in me and I became completely invested in the future of the characters.

The Red Chamber is a complex historical family drama with fascinating characters that I both loved and despised and regardless of my sentiments I was completely drawn into their world. It was not the happily ever after I’d hoped and after a momentary disappointment I was resigned to accept that the ending was befitting to the overall mood of the story and the era and place in which it was set. I highly recommend The Red Chamber to those who appreciate historical, culturally-rich settings with characters who will remain in your thoughts for long after you’ve put down the book.

Overall Rating


“Highly Recommended!”

The Red Chamber can be purchased from Fishpond and other leading book retailers



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