Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Secret Language of Women, by Nina Romano - Book Review

The Secret Language of Women
Wayfarer Trilogy, Book One
By:  Nina Romano
Published:  September 29, 2015
Turner Publishing Company
Genre:  Romance, Historical, International
Pages:  372 Paperback, 381 PDF
Source:  Author/Turner Publishing Company

Set in China in the late 1800’s, The Secret Language of Women tells the story of star-crossed lovers, Zhou Bin Lian, a Eurasian healer, and Giacomo Scimenti, an Italian sailor, driven apart by the Boxer Rebellion.

When Lian is seventeen years old, she accompanies her Swiss father, Dr. Gianluca Brasolin, fluent in Italian, to tend the Italian ambassador at the Summer Palace of Empress Dowager where she meets and falls in love with Giacomo.

Through voyage and adventure their love intensifies, but soon is severed by Lian’s dutiful promise as the wife to another. Forbidden from pursuing her chosen profession as a healer, and despised because she does not have bound feet, she is forced to work in a cloisonné factory while her in-laws raise her daughter, Ya Chen. It is in Nushu, the women’s secret writing, that she chronicles her life and her hopes for the future.

Rebelling against the life forced upon her, she empowers herself to act out against the injustice and becomes the master of her own destiny. But her quest for freedom comes at a costly price: the life of someone close to her lost in a raging typhoon, a grueling journey to the Yun-kang Caves, and a desperate search for beauty and love in the midst of brutality. 
The Secret Language of Women is the fascinatingly written journey of Lian, daughter of a Swiss physician and Chinese mother, set in China on the verge of 1900. Because of the influence of her European father, Lian grows up very non-traditional and desires to be a healer like him. It is from her mother and grandmother that she has learned Nushu, women's secret writing. Lian’s parentage is especially relevant as the story takes place during the Boxer Rebellion, a Chinese uprising against all foreigners, probably even those of mixed heritage.

We follow Lian from her first bliss of love with shipboard Sicilian chef, Giacomo, as they spend time at the Empress Dowager’s palace, then unexpected separation, on to Lian’s brave quest in life to find happiness and love. Her ordeals and wanderings really take the reader through a large cross section of Chinese life at the turn of the century and a gamut of human experiences.

Nina Romano runs two narratives; that of Lian’s as well as Giacomo’s through their never-ending search to find each other again. I was looking for more distinct voices between the female and male perspectives even though Lian’s story is told in first person while Giacomo’s is mostly third person omniscient. Both are told in a similar tone so the author may have wanted the entire story to have a continuous feel.

The book is replete with cultural and esoteric pieces, traditions that endure through separation, war, and death through the generations. Some of these are details on the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, herbalism, and lots of fabulous food (Italian and Chinese).

The astrology references intrigued me as I sporadically study Qi Men Dun Jia where I learned the Chinese divide the day into 2-hour segments corresponding to their animal signs; hence “hour of the rat” etc.

We also see the terrible effects of the rebellion on the Chinese themselves and foreigners alike.

Ultimately, I think the value of Nushu in this novel is that it provides a way for these women to journal/express their true personal thoughts without censure in a society that overlooks their real contributions. They are considered chattel and/or sexual possessions. The actual and terrible practice of foot binding that required repeatedly breaking bones in the feet of very young girls and causing a great deal of pain to achieve a perceived level of beauty/sexual utility is a stark example of this (that this practice brought unforeseen sexual benefits is one of the strangest things that I’ve ever read).

My fav quote: “You are alive, therefore all things are possible.”

If you’re looking for a deeply satisfying and contemplative read, I highly recommend this beautifully detailed book.  5.0 Stars!

My special thanks to Nina Romano and to Turner Publishing for the pleasure of a soft-cover reading copy. This in no way influenced my review.

Book Two of the Wayfarer Trilogy, Lemon Blossoms, is being released February 16, 2016. For more on Nina you will find her on the web at these links: 

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