Friday, July 13, 2018

Pearl Buck - Pavilion of Women

Publisher: The John Day Company
Year: 1946
Author: Pearl S. Buck
Title: Pavilion of Women

My reading spree of Asia based novels continues with Pearl S. Buck's Pavilion of Women.  I have read a few books of hers. The Good Earth, of course, it was very good. I read it very long back and have only a couple of memories of it. Peony was about the life of a concubine in a big house.

Pearl Buck's parents were missionaries and she lived for many years in China. It gave her a ringside view to the society and customs of the country. She has written about China (and other Asian countries) in times when people had very little knowledge of what went on there. I am sure her novels were seen as quaint and informative.

In the current times, we have a wealth of literature from all countries of the world. Written by native authors as well as foreign ones. Even if we do not want to read novels about other cultures we can read about the history and geography of any country that we want. All we need is inclination and time.

Coming back to this novel, the plot was unusual for its times. Ailien Wu has just turned forty. She has been married to Mr. Wu for the past 25 years. She has four living sons. Her long standing wish is to retire from married life. She does not want any more sexual attentions from her husband. To fulfill this, she sets out to seek a concubine for her husband. This is such an unusual move that everyone around her is aghast. Her best friend, Meichen Wang cannot fathom it and accuses her of not loving her husband. But Ailien is implacable. Her excuse is that she does not want the shame of a late pregnancy.

Secretly, Ailien feels suffocated by her role as the head of a large household. The Wu family is the most important in their area. In fact, even in far off places, her family is well known and respected. She has been bearing this burden, unflaggingly, for a long time. Now she wishes to call her time her own, her nights undisturbed by her husband.  She cannot forgo the duties of looking after the household or travel, but she can withdraw from her husband and active social life.

She finds that the problems of her family keep drawing her back into the fold. The new concubine is too sensitive to enjoy the benefits of living in a large, rich household. Her eldest son is happily married and bearing children but her other sons are impatient and unhappy. She has to find a bride for her third son. Even though she has withdrawn from life, she finds herself pulling strings and meddling in everyone's life.

It is the arrival of Father Andre in their midst that changes things for Ailien. At first she is rather wary of the Priest, afraid he will try to convert them. She finds he is merely a very spiritual and a wise person and wants the best for all human beings. He teaches her the right way to let go of the world. She learns this and as is customary, loses something for the knowledge she has gained.

The inner journey of Madame Ailien Wu aside, the novel seems rather hastily put together. There are many events that seem to be there merely for wrapping up the story. I cannot reveal them without spoiling the story.

Pearl Buck is supposed to have churned out many books on similar themes. Readers who have read many of her books will perhaps start recognizing the similarities. On its own the novel is a pretty good read but I expected something more from a Nobel Prize winner; more literary merit for one, which seems rather lacking here. There is no mention at all of the political turmoil that China faced in the late 1880s and early 1900s.