Amherst Magazine

The Painter from Shanghai

By Jennifer Cody Epstein ’88. New York City: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008. 416 pp. $24.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Lauren Groff ’01

The premise of Jennifer Cody Epstein’s first novel, The Painter from Shanghai, may sound a touch familiar. In the past decade or so, there has been a wildly successful wave of Asian-inspired books by American writers (for instance, Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha), and Epstein’s book shares many of these novels’ tropes: a plucky heroine; forced subservience in a brothel or oppressive marriage (brothel, in this case); a slow feminist awakening. Add foot-binding, opium, poetry about mists and blades of glass, and a cover that’s a virtual copy of Golden’s, and Epstein’s novel could be just another glossy story flirting with Orientalism.

But to dismiss this novel would do a disservice to both book and writer: The Painter from Shanghai is subtler than many of its predecessors, and Epstein is a finer writer. The story is a fictionally fleshed-out version of the life of the Chinese Postimpressionist painter Pan Yuliang. She was famous for her nude self-portraits in a time (the early 20th century) and place (mostly China) in which people were scandalized by women wearing Western-style slacks. While the trajectory of this heroine is predictable—she will be liberated from the brothel by an official who makes her his concubine and will liberate herself, in turn, from her husband through her art—it is hardly Epstein’s fault. These are the facts, and the writer works well within their confines. At times her prose shimmers, especially regarding Yuliang’s sensitivity to color, and the book feels lovingly researched. When Epstein writes of Yuliang’s first brothel, a reader can see it perfectly: “a two-story house, its shutters painted a garish jade. Its doorway is crowded with elaborate signs, sculptures, and hangings, sprawling latticework, gold and red paint. Slips of paper hang on cords over the door, the print on them thick and stylized, the words winking in and out of view in the breeze.”

Still, I wonder if Epstein’s book succeeds on its own terms. It is ambitious to fictionalize the biography of an artist. For one, even the best prose stylists have a terrible time evoking a painting or piece of music in words. For another, books like these give rise to an automatic and uncomfortable meta-comparison between the respective artistry of the subject and the novelist. When novels about artists succeed, it is because they equalize the playing field. In Colm Tóibín’s The Master, an astounding novel about Henry James, the structure is as architectural as a James novel, and the language is as precise and psychologically astute as the subject’s. In all good art, too, there must be urgency: one must feel that the art had to be produced, that it had to be produced now and that it could only have been done by the artist who made it.

Epstein’s novel is an admirably crafted book, and many readers will enjoy the ultimate love story that is its true and beating heart. Still, there’s a chasm between Epstein and Pan Yuliang. The descriptions of Yuliang’s paintings are so vague that it is impossible to know what they look like, and the story is told in straightforward realism when perhaps a more daring structure and style would have suited the painter’s gutsy calligraphic Postimpressionism. Mostly, there is too little urgency in this novel: We have been told many times about the ambivalent redemption of art, and I longed for deeper meaning. Because there is little in the story that demands difficult questions of the contemporary world, it is unclear why it had to be told now. And the book is well-written, but I sensed in it no burning individual artistic voice.

Still, not everybody expects abiding art from novels, and it may be enough that The Painter from Shanghai is enjoyable and often lovely. Epstein has a sensitive eye and a gift for research. If, with this first novel, she hadn’t quite selected the subject that would best suit her talents, I predict she someday will.

Groff published her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, a New York Times bestseller, in 2008.

Epstein was interviewed by Professor Sam Morse for the Amherst Reads book club.