Format: Hardcover, 416pp
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Pub. Date: March 2008
After turning the last page in The Painter from Shanghai, my first thought was one of amazement. This is Jennifer Cody Epstein’s first novel and it flows off the page as if some famous historical author had penned it. Which I’m sure she will be in time.
With a deft talent, not unlike a skilled painter, Jennifer Cody Epstein brings to life Pan Yuliang a “one-time prostitute, postimpressionist, and adopted Parisian” who lived from 1899-1977. Pan Yuliang was infamous as much for her past as her nude self-portraits, and Jennifer Cody Epstein brings this woman to life on the pages. Yuliang is a character so real that once the book is closed, she haunts you.
We are first introduced to Yuliang in 1957, working in a studio in France. She’s painting two nude models, swept up in her work, but the past creeps in. In the first few pages you are swept away by the strength of the woman on the page, her view of the world. Only once we have met her as a semi-successful artist do we go back and get the rest of the story.
At the age of fourteen Yuliang is sold into prostitution in Wuhu by her only living relative, an opium addicted uncle. Soon she has adapted to life in the Flower House, becoming the top-girls protégée and eventually taking over the spot. Here she meets Pan Zanhua, a government official who buys her out of her contract at the Flower House.
Yuliang goes to live with Zanhua which causes a stir in the town of Wuhu. But Zanhua isn’t just interested in her body or the services she could perform for him. He is unexpected in every way to Yulaing, in that he speaks to her as an equal and is interested in thoughts and beliefs. The two fall in love and Yliang becomes his second wife. Zanhua is a rock for Yuliang, supporting her ambitions for education and eventually her dreams to paint.
When the gossip becomes too much in Wuhu and begins to affect Zanhua’s career he moves Yuliang to Shanghai. It is in Shanghai that Yuliang starts to really sketch and expand on her natural born talent. She eventually attends school and goes abroad to study in France and Italy. Yulaing becomes famous for her nude self portraits as well as her blend of Western and Eastern styles. Yulaing’s dedication to her art eventually leads to her becoming a target of the Chinese government.
I have no real complaints with this novel. You are treated to the high points of Yuliang’s life and not bogged down with extra information, which in turn moves the novel forward at a steady pace that never falters. From her life in the false beauty of the Flower House to the streets of Paris, and the city and people in-between, Jennifer Cody Epstein breathes life into Pan Yulaing and when the book ends she only leaves you wanting more.
The Painter from Shanghai is by turns sad and uplifting, brilliant and bright as only an artist’s life can be. But Pan Yuliang isn’t the only artist on the page. Jennifer Cody Epstein paints this painter’s life with words, leaving the mind full of colorful images and half dreams as the pages swirl by.