Amherst Magazine

Building to a Boil

A quality of longing animates this lovely and subtle first novel. A Thread of Sky, by Deanna Fei ’99 (Penguin)

Reviewed by Lauren Groff ’01

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[Fiction]  Two-thirds of the way into Deanna Fei’s first novel, A Thread of Sky, a small, unexpectedly tender scene arises that will lend the book its title. Irene Chen, who has come back to tour her native China with her daughters, sister and mother, is in a cave in Hangzhou where, if one peers carefully enough, one can just barely catch a glimmer of sky above. Everyone has quarreled all morning, and Irene is sad that the trip, meant to keep her family from splintering even more than it has since her husband died the year before, is proving itself to be a failure. She stands in the dark cave, drenched with rain and lonely among the throngs of tourists, and imagines “an undulating line, alive and fine against the dark. The kind of thing you couldn’t help but reach for, knowing there was nothing to grasp.”

It is precisely this quality of longing that animates this lovely and subtle novel. One of the great pleasures of the book is watching how Fei manages to explore a dozen ways of straining for what remains just out of reach. Irene was a pioneer in Alzheimer’s research before she gave up her career to raise her three daughters, who are all perhaps overly ambitious young women: Nora is a high-intensity Wall Street trader who can’t commit to her sweet but errant fiancé, Kay is on a fellowship in China and trying to save hookers who don’t want to be saved, and Sophie is an artist and bulimic who has just graduated from high school. Irene’s sister, Susan, is a poet who has given up the life of a traveling creative writing teacher for a safe, if unexciting, marriage in Hong Kong. And the firebrand of the family, Irene and Susan’s mother, Ma, who was a famous Nationalist revolutionary in China before she immigrated to the United States, has estranged herself from her daughters with her intransigent demands that they become great in their fields. It is Ma who is both the heart and the broken heart of the book, the one against whom the women in the family are mutinying and the one from whom they get their strength and fire. Together in the same place at last, these simmering women build to a high boil.

It is exhilarating to read a novel about the nature of female ambition; it is far more exhilarating to find that the novelist doing the exploration is as ambitious as they come. Fei’s canvas—a family of feisty women taking a trip together to China—is simple only on its surface. Deeply, A Thread of Sky is a novel about belonging, perfection, cultural pressure, how to leave and what it means to be left behind. Fei’s prose is always careful and at times gorgeous, and her handling of magnificent, mind-boggling contemporary China is deft and sympathetic. A Thread of Sky is not perfect: the first third is expositive and doesn’t wake up until it reaches China; the backstory at times swamps the frontstory; the daughters have so precisely the same overweening sense of entitlement that at times the book takes on an odd, tinny flavor that can linger for pages. But I’ve never read a perfect novel; it’s probably not possible to write one. The goal of an artist is not to be faultless but merely to reflect humankind back to ourselves, and we are flawed, all. A Thread of Sky’s imperfections are small and forgivable and, much like the failings of the most fascinating people, only add to the book’s tremendous charm.

Groff is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Monsters of Templeton.