Thursday, April 28, 2011

Review: A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei

A Thread of SkyA Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei is a complex family drama that touches on a number of key themes including feminism, immigration,  mother/daughter relationships and the power of family legacy.  The story centers on a family of six strong-willed women: Irene and her daughters Nora, Kay and Sophie; Irene's sister, Susan; and the matriarch, Irene and Susan's mother Lin Yulan.  Irene and Susan immigrated from Taiwan (after leaving China as young girls) to the US as young women and Lin followed a number of years later after deciding to leave her philandering husband.  Lin is a force to be reckoned with and hardly maternal - she expects a lot of her daughters and rarely shows them much empathy.  As a result, her relationship with her adult girls and grandchildren is estranged and she rarely sees Irene, Susan or her granddaughters.  Until Irene decides, after the sudden death of her husband, that all six women should take a trip to China - a pilgrimage of sorts to their homeland.  The other women, knowing their relationships are all strained, are reluctant to go but eventually give in to Irene and take the trip to China to take in all the "Must See" sights on a package tour. 

Irene made a conscious decision to be a completely different mother to her girls than her mother was to her -  she takes pride in settling into a home and centering her world around her daughters and their needs even giving up her work as an Alzheimer's researcher so she could focus on her children.  Her mother ridicules her for these sacrifices and feels her work and fulfilling her own potential should have been the priority - the children would raise themselves. She ignores her mother's objections and dedicates herself to her girls and is rewarded with three successful but fairly ungrateful daughters who seem to lack respect for their mother.  Her sister Susan describes the girls, her nieces:
Irene had raised such obviously outstanding daughters - sharp, ambitious, good-looking to boot.  She bequeathed them Ma's self-righteousness, perhaps not realizing they would be finished with American exceptionalism, historical ignorance and entitlement.  They were in the vanguard; others were laggards.  They set out to better the world and held themselves above it.
 The girls, however, do each pay a price for their success and their need to hold themselves above others.  Nora, the eldest, is a hard-driving Wall Street wonderkid who cannot commit to her boyfriend Jesse and completely lacks the ability to admit dependence on him emotionally. Kay, living in China for one year on a fellowship, also fails to connect emotionally with men and bounces from relationship to relationship knowing something critical is missing.  Sophie, the baby of the family, suffers from bulimia as she tries to impose control on emotions that she feels are out of control.  Of course, each girl's struggle is a secret they fiercely guard from the other women in the family and those secrets are taken along on the trip to China.
Historical Village, Anhui Province; Credit: Deanna Fei

Irene, Susan and Lin also each have secrets - with everyone so committed to keeping their secrets from each other, it is little wonder there is so much distance between them all.  Piling them all into hotel rooms together and onto a tour bus all day, every day for two weeks does little to bridge that distance and, in fact, adds to the conflict as they are forced to interact and to face things about each other and themselves that they would sooner forget.  As the trip progresses however, the women do begin to understand a little more about each other and the history that has shaped each woman - they start to understand the events and experiences that drove some of the behaviors that has frustrated them with each other.  Although the trip doesn't bring the type of closeness Irene seeks with her daughters and her Mom and sister, it does bring about revelations which permit them to all the be much more tolerant of each other and not so rigid.

My Thoughts
There is so much to say about this book it is hard to know where to begin.  The book is beautifully written with an attention to detail that is impressive.  The result is a very rich novel with many, many layers which makes it difficult to sum up in a single post.  As I said at the start of the review, there are many themes in this book and each one is deserving of a separate post (I will be writing a separate post about the theme of immigration  - look for it on April 30th).  The author has created a group of strong-willed women who are driven, often to their detriment, by a history each only barely understands.  As the trip to China begins to remedy some of that lack of understanding, vulnerabilities are  revealed in each woman which humanizes them.  The many themes, the interweaving of the history of China and exploration of the must-see sights in the country all add much to this novel but what impacted me the most was the subtle revelation and even slight transformation of each character.  That coupled with the message that family ties really do bind and it is difficult, if not impossible, to completely shrug off the legacy which made you makes this an excellent read - I highly recommend it!

I read this book as part of the TLC Book Tour for the novel although I did read my own copy which I purchased last year.  Thanks to Trish from TLC for the opportunity to review this book and the inspiration to pull it off my shelves!

This book makes an excellent selection for the Immigrant Stories Challenge.


  1. Mother daughter relatioships are always interesting.

    Book Dilettante

  2. Wow, Colleen! You wrote a wonderful review. I concur with all the things you mentioned and look forward to your thoughts on Saturday. Love the pictures of China, by the way.

    I noticed you yesterday at the Booktrib party. I was there too, just not as My Random Acts of Reading! Too long!

  3. Great review! Sounds like this book gives you a lot to ponder.

  4. I keep hearing about father-son relationship books, so I'm kind of excited to see a mother-daughter book!

  5. This sounds like a really powerful book. I hope I can convince my book club to read it - I think we'd have an excellent discussion of all the themes.

    Thanks so much for being on the tour.

  6. I loved this one a lot! Mainly because the immigrant issue touched a chord within me. I've lived in three different countries so far and the feeling of 'where do I belong' is something that I've been through many times.