Lady Tan's circle of women

Lisa See

Book - 2023

According to Confucius, "an educated woman is a worthless woman," but Tan Yunxian-born into an elite family, yet haunted by death, separations, and loneliness-is being raised by her grandparents to be of use. Her grandmother is one of only a handful of female doctors in China, and she teaches Yunxian the pillars of Chinese medicine, the Four Examinations-looking, listening, touching, and asking-something a man can never do with a female patient. From a young age, Yunxian learns about w...omen's illnesses, many of which relate to childbearing, alongside a young midwife-in-training, Meiling. The two girls find fast friendship and a mutual purpose-despite the prohibition that a doctor should never touch blood while a midwife comes in frequent contact with it-and they vow to be forever friends, sharing in each other's joys and struggles. No mud, no lotus, they tell themselves: from adversity beauty can bloom. But when Yunxian is sent into an arranged marriage, her mother-in-law forbids her from seeing Meiling and from helping the women and girls in the household. Yunxian is to act like a proper wife-embroider bound-foot slippers, pluck instruments, recite poetry, give birth to sons, and stay forever within the walls of the family compound, the Garden of Fragrant Delights. How might a woman like Yunxian break free of these traditions, go on to treat women and girls from every level of society, and lead a life of such importance that many of her remedies are still used five centuries later? How might the power of friendship support or complicate these efforts?

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11 people waiting
3 copies ordered
Historical fiction
Domestic fiction
[S.l.] : SCRIBNER 2023.
Main Author
Lisa See (author)
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In See's satisfactory latest (after The Island of Sea Women), Tan Yunxian, a historical doctor from 15th-century China, finds her calling at odds with other traditional duties of marriage and motherhood. After Yunxian's mother dies from an infection, she's sent to live with her doting paternal grandparents, both physicians who teach her the art of medicine. There, Yunxian develops an intimate friendship with Meiling, the daughter of a midwife--a profession considered taboo by many elite families such as Yunxian's. After she marries into a wealthy merchant family, Yunxian's mother-in-law puts a stop to her work, forcing her to live as a proper Confucian woman, and she becomes isolated from Meiling and her passion for medicine. See weaves an appealing tale of female love and loyalty as the women in Yunxian's life rally around her, eventually leading to the publication of her book Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor, which the author draws on. Though the pacing can feel slow and the outcome a tad predictable, See adds intrigue with a side plot involving a mysterious death, along with notable depictions of footbinding and the intricacies of Chinese medicine. See's fans will find much to enjoy. Agent: Sandy Dijkstra, Sandy Dijkstra Literary Agency. (June)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Kirkus Book Review

The lives of women in 15th-century China are illuminated in this engrossing novel. Tan Yunxian was a real historical figure who published a book about her career as a physician, but little is known about her personal life. See creates a rich story about a girl born into an aristocratic family. That accident of birth should have written her fate: limited education, bound feet, arranged marriage, childbirth, and a life spent entirely behind the walls of family compounds. She doesn't escape all of those things, but after the early death of her mother, she's raised by her paternal grandparents, who are both doctors, and given an unusually advanced education, including in the healing arts they practice. Yunxian's life is constrained by rules governing her class and gender, and she is literally never alone--even when she sleeps, her maid sleeps at the foot of her bed. Her family's wealthy extended household has an elaborate structure, and she learns early to negotiate the gradations among first wives, second wives, and concubines and to recognize that, like them, she is valued for beauty and fertility and little else. She breaks a rule, though, when she becomes friends with Meiling, the daughter of Midwife Shi, who delivers the family's babies. As Yunxian's grandmother says, midwives are "indispensable"--male doctors are not allowed to look at or touch their female patients--but they're also reviled for their contact with blood and practice of abortion. The lifelong friendship between Yunxian and Meiling will have an indelible impact on both women, and in a later portion of the book they'll even be involved in an attempted murder trial. Yunxian's arranged marriage is a fairly happy one, but as she matures, she grows more focused on practicing as a physician. She sometimes has insight into the inequities of feudal China, especially the treatment of working-class women. But she's hardly revolutionary; even though she experienced the brutal pain of foot binding and watched her mother die of an infection caused by it, she binds the feet of her three daughters without question. Although the book's pace can sometimes slow, it's packed with historical detail. Women's friendships in a world where they have little freedom shape a quietly moving book. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.