Family sagas are one of my most favorite genres. They tend to be epic, chunky novels that hit that sweet spot for me. When I saw Melissa Fu’s Peach Blossom Spring (Little, Brown and Company 2022), I knew I had to have it. It boasts a stunning cover, and it follows a time in China that I know very little about. My main complaint is that it could have been longer; Renshu/Henry needed a bit more flesh put on his sections.
The novel opens in China in 1938. Meilin is the beloved wife of Dao Xiaowen, and she’s given the family their only male heir. Meilin birthed the son of a son, and the world revolves around Renshu. After Meilin loses her husband in the “War of Resistance,” the family is forced to flee the advancing Japanese. Meilin’s brother-in-law, Longwei, keeps an eye on Meilin and Renshu as best he can, but Meilin questions his motives and doesn’t want to be in his debt.
Meilin’s prized possession is a scroll she keeps tucked in her sewing box. Xiaowen had given it to her before he left. When life gets hard and scary, she gently unfurls it and tells its story to the children. The beautiful antique and her voice have a calming effect during a time of uncertainty and chaos. Somehow, the pair (and the scroll) survives in a ravaged landscape. Renshu and Meilin eventually seek refuge in Taiwan – the tickets secured by Meilin sacrificing two things that meant the world to her and their passage secured by papers belonging to others; this marks the first erasure.
Meilin makes a life for her and her son in Taiwan. She and Longwei eventually reunite, and she uses his money and influence to secure Renshu’s passage to the United States so that he can continue his education.
The novel then follows Renshu, who becomes Henry, as he navigates Illinois, the conflict in China an ever-present worry in his mind. The Kennedy assassination leads meeting a man who introduces him to Chopin. Chopin introduces him to Rachel. And Rachel introduces him to love. And Renshu continues to fade away.
After graduation, Henry and Rachel move to New Mexico where a child is born. Lily is named for Henry’s favorite cousin, but his daughter will never hear her story. Henry struggles with his past and his present, ever cognizant of the fact that actions he takes in the US could be dangerous for his mother in Taiwan. A language and a culture become lost; a mother erased.
Despite a desire to know, Lily is denied access to her Chinese heritage, and a bitter disconnect takes root. The final portion of the novel follows her to Texas and then New York as she struggles with finding her identity. When Meilin becomes ill, Lily joins her father as he returns to Taiwan. A healing begins as life is breathed back in the old stories.
In this novel of three lives, Meilin’s section roars with fierceness and pride. It is beautifully crafted and framed in a colorful history and rich story-telling tradition. This is lost in Renshu’s section the moment he becomes Henry and moves to the US; the writing, much like the character, loses its vibrance. Some of the beauty is rediscovered in Lily’s sections, but the novel never quite sings the same.
It’s a novel of family and perseverance. Of history and art. Of storytelling and loss. Of escaping and surviving. Of mothers. It’s about finding your own peach blossom spring and rewriting the ending.
Read this book.