Book Review: Falling Leaves

In the last few weeks, I've been trying to develop a regular exercise habit, which has included walking from work to the train station three times a week instead of getting the bus. However, this has meant that I've lost a big chunk of my reading time, so I'm trying to catch up - which means there'll be a lot of book reviews on the blog. So today's review is Falling Leaves, Adeline Yen Mah's biography of her life as an 'unwanted Chinese daughter'.

One of five children from her father's first marriage, Adeline was believed to be unlucky because her mother died giving birth to her. After her father remarried, her stepmother Niang favoured her two biological children over the children from her husband's first marriage - and Adeline was at the bottom of the list, with only her grandfather and aunt showing her any love or kindness.

I had previously read Chinese Cinderella, which covers Adeline's childhood in far more depth, so for me the first half of the book was a bit odd - even though it's years since I read it, the fact that some of the incidents were repeated in that book gave me a sense of deja vu. That said, the stories still have the power to pack an emotional punch, such as Adeline being left entirely alone in her convent school over the school summer holidays. And the depiction of her grandfather, and how he is mistreated by her stepmother, is just heartbreaking - especially coming from a culture where the elder members of a family are given the utmost respect.

The second half of the book focuses on Adeline's life building her career as a doctor (despite her lifelong yearning to be a writer), her failed first marriage and her successful second one, and ends with the conclusion of a dispute over her father's will which opens the book. I found it really up and down in terms of the tone; every time something positive happened in Adeline's life, there seemed to be another step back, usually in the form of more negativity from her family. After a point I found the book quite frustrating for this reason as it felt like Adeline increasingly cataloguing her negativity but not really doing anything to change it - or her attitude towards it.

On the plus side, the descriptions in the book are really good, especially those of Shanghai and Niang - they completely bring the characters and their world to life, which adds a layer of depth and realism to the novel. It's also a fairly quick read at just under 300 pages, so relatively easy to get through, and I liked the chapter titles which are all based around ancient Chinese proverbs.

Overall, this was a fairly underwhelming book - whilst the descriptions were good, it just felt too relentlessly negative for me, so probably not one I'd recommend. That said, if slightly sad autobiographies are your sort of thing, it might be worth giving it a go.

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