Author: Lisa See
Reviewed by Chloe Fuksa, Putnam Six Book Store
Do you like historical fiction but want a break from World War II Europe? Author Lisa See’s newest novel, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, is set in 15th-century China and is inspired by the true story of a woman doctor, Tan Yunxian. See’s prior two books were The Island of Sea Women and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and this one is just as incredible, if not more so. The book is structured in four parts, for the four stages of a woman’s life – Milk Days, Hair-Pinning Days, Rice-and-Salt Days, and Sitting Quietly – and it comes in at the perfect length of 340 pages.
We meet young Yunxian at the age of eight, as she’s being taught about a woman’s place in Chinese culture and as she’s enduring the practice of foot binding. When her mother dies due to an infection, Yunxian is sent to live with her grandparents, who introduce her to Chinese medicine and the ways to help heal others. After an arranged marriage at age 15, though, when Yunxian goes to live with her husband’s family, her mother-in-law strictly forbids her from helping others, believing that that task belongs solely to a male doctor. As women realize, though, that only Yunxian knows firsthand what they’re going through, and as word of her secret cures reach farther and farther, she can’t help but treat those who call upon her. Furthermore, when a smallpox outbreak happens, the male doctor is nowhere to be found – only Yunxian has the compassion and courage to jump into action to save her family and household.
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is an utterly fascinating book in so many aspects. There’s the details of Chinese medicine and the use of certain herbs and concoctions. There’s the social hierarchy that governed every aspect of life. There’s the countless barriers that Yunxian and other women faced and had to overcome. There’s the beautiful friendships that carried the women through good times and bad. This book is such a change in terms of time and place from other works of historical fiction out now, and it really is just an enthralling read.
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