I needed a quick read for our trip since my husband would be using the tablet, so I went to the best place in the Library–the SCKLS Rotating collection, new titles (mostly fiction) that come to our Library every three months from the state library system. Great way for us to get current titles without spending money.
Anyway, I needed a book, and grabbed Empress Orchid by Anchee Min. Did not even read the bookflaps. When I did get time to sit on our balcony and read, I was pleasantly surprised to find it was a historical novel based on the life of the fourth wife of Chinese emporer Hsien Feng of the Chi’ing Dynasty in 1852. The story starts with Tzu Hsi or Orchid’s family having to bury her father and becoming destitute. She has to work and through her employer who had worked in the Forbidden City, learns what is needed to succeed in the competition to become one of the seven wives of the Emporer. After being picked as wife #4, she, her family, and all of China believe she will be happy forever. Happy only if you believe that watching your back for real and political knives makes you feel good. Happy if you believe that loneliness is how we were meant to live. Orchid survivies this world through love for her family that she cannot see, and knowing she has provided for their success back home. In the palace, she survives through pure cunning and knowledge, much of what she had obtained from her father when she was young.
This book came to life for me quickly, as we had traveled two years ago to China. What may have been opulence and elegance in the Forbidden City in the book seemed cold and gray to me in reality. We could only look through the window openings (no protective glass) into the throne rooms, but the tapestries, artwork, and carpeting were not there. The trees and pathways offered the most beauty, but sadly, pollution made the entire area appear gray.
The research for this book was meticulous and with Anchee Min’s storytelling ability, the book is not gray at all, but a wonderful tapestry of Empress Orchid’s very unusual life.