Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pg. 69: Jennifer Cody Epstein's "The Painter from Shanghai"

The current feature at the Page 69 Test: Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Painter from Shanghai.

About the book, from the publisher:
Reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha, a re-imagining of the life of Pan Yuliang and her transformation from prostitute to post-Impressionist.

Down the muddy waters of the Yangtze River and into the seedy backrooms of “The Hall of Eternal Splendor,” through the raucous glamour of prewar Shanghai and the bohemian splendor of 1920s Paris, and back to a China ripped apart by civil war and teetering on the brink of revolution: this novel tells the story of Pan Yuliang, one of the most talented—and provocative—Chinese artists of the twentieth century.

Jennifer Cody Epstein’s epic brings to life the woman behind the lush, Cezannesque nude self-portraits, capturing with lavish detail her life in the brothel and then as a concubine to a Republican official who would ultimately help her find her way as an artist. Moving with the tide of historical events, The Painter from Shanghai celebrates a singularly daring painting style—one that led to fame, notoriety, and, ultimately, a devastating choice: between Pan’s art and the one great love of her life.
Among the praise for The Painter from Shanghai:
"In this age of memoir and thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, writers who take high dives into deeply imagined waters have become increasingly rare — and valuable. What a pleasure, then, to discover that Jennifer Cody Epstein, whose luminous first novel, “The Painter From Shanghai,” is based on the actual life of Pan Yuliang, a former child prostitute turned celebrated painter, also happens to be one such writer.... In an epigraph, Epstein quotes the American painter John Sloan, who wrote that 'though a living cannot be made at art, art makes life worth living. It makes starving, living.' In the end, this is precisely what Epstein illustrates in her moving characterization of Pan Yuliang, who even as an abused young girl notes the way a 'slap mark glows red at first but fades slowly to peach-pink,' and as an adult, torn between her love for her husband and her desire to be unconstrained as an artist, chooses the nourishment of her work: 'She cocks her head ... and starts anew. She paints until the light outside has seeped away into the black sky; until the monks go home and the mourners leave, and all that’s left is the soft click of the gamblers’ ivory.'”
--Sarah Towers, New York Times Book Review

"Epstein's sweeping debut novel, set in early 20th-century China, fictionalizes the life of Chinese painter Pan Yuliang. Born Xiuquing, she is orphaned at a young age and later sold into prostitution by her uncle, who needs the money to support his opium habit. Renamed Yuliang, she becomes the brothel's top girl and soon snags the attention of customs inspector Pan Zanhua, who makes her his concubine. Zanhua sets her up in Shanghai, where she enrolls in the Shanghai Art Academy and early on struggles with life study, unable to separate the nude's monetary value from its value in the currency of beauty. She eventually succeeds, winning a scholarship to study in Europe. But when she returns to China, itself inching toward revolution, the conservative establishment is critical of Yuliang, balking as she adopts Western-style dress and becomes known for her nudes (one newspaper deems her work pornography). Simmering resentments hit a flashpoint at a disastrous Shanghai retrospective exhibit, and the fallout nearly destroys Yuliang's artistic ambition. Convincing historic detail is woven throughout and nicely captures the plight of women in the era. Epstein's take on Yuliang's life is captivating to the last line."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Fans of Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha and Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will enjoy this engrossing story of a woman forced to choose between following her heart and pursuing her art."
--Library Journal (starred review)
Learn more about the novel and author at Jennifer Cody Epstein's website.

Jennifer Cody Epstein has written for Self, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. She has published short fiction in several journals and was a finalist in a Glimmer Train fiction contest.

The Page 69 Test: The Painter from Shanghai.

--Marshal Zeringue