Distant Star

by Barbara Bickmore

Cover image

Publisher: Ballantine
Copyright: March 1993
ISBN: 0-345-36109-1
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 451

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Historical romance is not one of my normal reading genres, but I've been trying to expand the scope of my reading lately and have been curious about the great world of literature I'd not been following. When I was offered the loan of a book about China before World War II, I decided to give it a try. The tone of the first few pages turned me off, but I stuck through anyway out of curiosity and wanting to give the book a fair shot.

Chlöe is a rich white girl, a model of American social privilege, who marries a foreign correspondant after a short engagement and rather early in life and then goes with him to cover China in the late 1910s, the time shortly after the death of Yuan Shikai. She starts off shocked and appalled by China and what she perceives as dirty and casually violent behavior, befriends the wife of Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen, and is drawn into the orbit of various warring parties in China during the time between the World Wars. Predictably, given the genre, this involves various love affairs with some of the principals as well as an enduring friendship with Sun Yat-sen's wife. Famous figures of Chinese politics (Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong) appear as characters, although Chlöe's lovers are all invented figures. By the end of the book, she loves China without apparently ever reconsidering all of the things that made her hate it in one of those emotional transformations that I find particularly unsatisfying, and is helping save Chinese orphans (by bringing them over to the US).

The first major turn-off of this book for me is the writing style. It certainly requires little effort to read or interpretat; everything about Chlöe's reactions is repeated endlessly and in grandiose terms. The reader doesn't get to see her react to her environment. We're instead told the environment, the events, and then Chlöe's emotional state. Most chapters end on some sort of dramatic, cliched statement of emotion. I quickly tired of this and started skimming. The result of this technique is an artificial cast to the characters, a sense that the author doesn't have sufficient grasp of them to make the emotion obvious and implicit and therefore must tell the reader every detail. This is even apart from the standard romance cliches: the falling in love, the unrequited sexual passion, the movement from man to man carrying as much plot weight as other events of the story. On that count, much of the problem may just be that this isn't my genre and I'm less willing to tolerate its tropes, but Bickmore's descriptive range leaves something to be desired even outside of that. I think the book tried much too hard to be sweeping and grand.

Bickmore's treatment of Chinese culture is similarly shallow, which for me destroys much of the appeal in the book. This is a period of Chinese history about which I know little, and I would have liked to read a book that gave me a strong sense of place, of seeing how the people lived while these events went on around them. Unfortunately, what we get is an extended diatribe on how dirty, violent, horrible, disgusting, and uncivilized the Chinese are and how all these great leaders are trying to pull them out of the Dark Ages, educate them, and turn them into proper civilized consumers of either Western democracy or Western communism (both are presented in almost identical terms). Bickmore does avoid a knee-jerk negative reaction to communism, but everyone Chlöe interacts with agrees that China is just dreadful and must adopt Western customs and ideas in order to stop being an embarassment.

Now, to be fair, there may be a core of a reasonable position here. Third-world living conditions are horrible, dirty, and often violent, and it's entirely within character for someone of Chlöe's background to be repulsed and to want to improve them. However, nothing else of China is shown apart from a bit of cliched Confucian wisdom (featuring an ancient instructor, no less). Chlöe slowly becomes attached to specific Chinese people she respects, but there is nothing in this book of Chinese art, history, religion, or tradition other than the obvious bits everyone is decrying. I got from this book no sense of China as a place, only a collection of people and politics who had to be improved; there is far more description of the lifestyle of the Western diplomats in their closed Western enclaves and in the corridors of power modelled after them than of anything native to China, despite many plot opportunities to balance the description. Given that utter lack of background, this concern for the improvement of the lot of the Chinese people comes across as the sort of ignorant moral preaching so disgustingly common in US foreign politics and was a huge disappointment.

Most of Chlöe's attachments are either to Western characters (including a Russian modelled closely after Mikhail Borodin) or to Chinese who were educated in the United States (something that consistently throughout the book makes them better, more intelligent, and more advanced than those who weren't). The one exception, the one native Chinese leader who is not a proxy for some Western position, is also the romance character who is obviously made up. The dashing Chinese warlord who dislikes both the corrupt Chiang Kai-shek regime and the communists, who perceives the Japanese threat before everyone else, and who meets Chlöe under the worst of circumstances and then, of course, becomes a perfect gentleman stands out against the historical background in ways that didn't do much for my suspension of disbelief. And even there, where Bickmore would have a great opportunity to show a more native, non-Western Chinese outlook, Chlöe of course teaches him the superiority of her Western ideas.

Aside from the setting, this is an adventure novel for women. It reminded me at times of a Louis L'Amour Western with a scenery change and with passionate romance replacing stoic competence as the protagonist's way of interacting with the world. The last hundred pages are the best part of the book, since Chlöe finally gets fed up with having frightening adventures and starts taking matters into her own hand and trying to improve the world. It's all still very racist and imperialistic (despite much anti-imperialist posturing by the characters), but to some degree this is forgivable as in-character for the heroine and the era in which the story is set. There is danger turned away by fortitude and sparkling wit, horrible events that are endured, grand adventure among the notables of Chinese history, and a happy ending with true love and social usefulness for the heroine; in short, all the cliches of women's fiction are followed dutifully.

The book is never so bad that I couldn't believe it was published, and at times it's quite exciting. It just reminds me of all the reasons why I don't normally read this genre, and the lack of any real Chinese cultural content is hard to forgive.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-11-05

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21