The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan – Review

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Geling Yan is famous for her novella, The 13 Flowers of Nanjing, which was adapted for the film The Flowers of War. Her novel, The Lost Daughter of Happiness, is set in San Francisco in the 1860s.

Film poster for the movie based on The Flowers of War, by Geling Yan (The Flowers of War is also named The 13 Women of Nanjing, and The 13 Flowers of Nanjing)

Not really a romance

The cover of the 1st edition of The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan (Hyperion; Reprint edition 2002, paperback edition 2010). The woman on the cover looks rather like a ghost.

Despite the tagline on the cover, this is not a traditional romance. The story is simultaneously revolting and intriguing, upsetting and riveting. In fact there is hardly any love to speak of, rather a lot of tragedy, and an array of decidedly nasty characters – pimps, wanderers, rapists, wheeler-dealers, miners and prostitutes in San Francisco of the 1860s. Even the main character, exotic courtesan Fusang, is not beautiful or charming by today’s standards, with tiny, contorted feet, wobbly fat and a habit of chewing and spitting melon seeds in stead of talking. Fusang survives kidnapping, rape, beatings and disease because she is utterly aloof:

“…deep down she really was free; she had the kind of freedom that rescue or salvation could never bring, the kind that nobody could ever give or take away.”

A later, more romantic design for the cover of The Lost Daughter of Happiness, by Geling Yan.

This puts a distance between her and an ordinary farm boy who falls in love with her and wants to save her. The contrasts between their worlds are mirrored in the differences and tensions between the resentful San Francisco establishment and the growing Chinese immigrant population.

Yan describes the majority of the Chinese characters, the protagonist “Fusang” in particular, as being fatalistic and passive. She contrasts them against the zeal and greed of the American characters, and, intriguingly, extends these observations to present-day Chinese-American relations. It is not an easy read, especially with the over-wrought emotions. However, it would be possible to translate this into a rip-roaring movie. 

It’s interesting that Geling Yan stands with her feet in both worlds – she is equally well regarded in the USA and in China, and is simultaneously a member of the Hollywood Writer’s Guild of America and the Writer’s Association of China.

 About the author

Geling Yan at the 2008 Taipei International Book Exhibition (Photo: 16 February 2008, Rico Shen)

Geling Yan (simplified Chinese: 严歌苓; traditional Chinese: 嚴歌苓; pinyin: Yán Gēlíng; born 1958) is the author of several novels, short stories and screenplays. Much of her work has been adapted for film. She has been represented by the Hong Kong-based Peony Literary Agency. She is the author of The 13 Women of Nanjing, about the Nanking Massacre, which formed the basis of a 2011 film, subsequently renamed The Flowers of War, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Christian Bale and Shigeo Kobayashi.

About M. Bijman

Avid reader, longtime writer of book reviews and literary analyses. Interested in literature, creativity and cognition, language and linguistics, musicology, and technology. Occasionally writes poems and bits of music.

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