When I recently bought a new copy of Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress so I could write a review, it was because I had remembered loving the story when it was first published in 2001 and wanted people to “discover” it again. I thought this slim novel had been one of those books that found early hardcover success—it was an international and New York Times bestseller—but over time had lost its audience and disappeared. So you can guess how thrilled I was to find that it is in its thirty-eighth paperback printing and that a world of readers has found this book and loved it too. Still, you may never have read it so I am writing this review for you.
When people say to you, “this is a little gem of a book,” this is the kind of book they are talking about. But make no mistake—this isn’t a diamond-you-need-to-see-with-a-magnifying-glass kind of “little gem,” this is a five-carat emerald-cut diamond of beautiful writing and storytelling.
On the surface this is the story of two young men, the teenage sons of denounced enemies of the state, who have been sent to Phoenix of the Sky Mountain near Tibet to be reeducated during the Cultural Revolution—and the young Seamstress they meet and both fall in love with, one reciprocally and one jealously. They are sent to the mountain with a third outcast from Beijing, Four Eyes, who carries with him a secret suitcase of illegal Western novels.
Luo is the son of a dentist, who was denounced for, among other things, having boasted of fixing Chairman Mao’s teeth. Luo is also a fabulous storyteller, a skill that impresses the headman of their village so much he pays for Luo and the unnamed author to visit the nearest big town so that they can watch movies and come back to reenact “oral cinema shows” for the enjoyment of the townspeople. This respite of two days from the backbreaking work of their reeducation is a boon both boys relish. It is during one of their visits that they meet the beautiful Little Seamstress and their visits away from the village take on a completely new frisson of excitement.
At some point, and it’s wonderful how it happens, they come into possession of Four Eyes’ suitcase of novels and they discover the beauty of reading—the author for the joy of it, Luo so he can impress and educate the Little Seamstress.
Neither of them could ever anticipate the outcome of their endeavors but what happens is so unexpected and yet so satisfying an ending you can’t help but be happy.
The story is deceptive in its simplicity. The author, in his quiet beautiful way, seems to tell a straightforward tale about three young people but as you read you are taken deeper into the mountain and into the hearts of the characters and realize that everyone involved is getting a re-education – just not the one the State expected.
This is a book about growing up and the choices that you face and must make as the adult world demands more of you. It is also a book about the cost of freedom, the definition of love, the deep connections of friends and family, and the importance of courage, but mostly it is about the joy of reading, of discovering authors and stories that take you out of your own life and let you dream of worlds and possibilities greater than your surroundings, that let you see a world you can make come true.