The Distant Land of My Father

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9780156027137: The Distant Land of My Father

Anna, the narrator of this riveting novel, lives in a storybook world: exotic pre-World War II Shanghai, with handsome young parents, wealth, and comfort. Her father, the son of missionaries, leads a charmed and secretive life, though his greatest joy is sharing his beloved city with his only daughter. Yet when Anna and her mother flee Japanese-occupied Shanghai to return to California, he stays behind, believing his connections and a little bit of luck will keep him safe.

Through Anna's memories and her father's journals we learn of his fall from charismatic millionaire to tortured prisoner, in a story of betrayal and reconciliation that spans two continents. The Distant Land of My Father, a breathtaking and richly lyrical debut, unfolds to reveal an enduring family love through tragic circumstances.

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Review:

The Distant Land of My Father begins like a fairy tale: "My father was a millionaire in Shanghai in the 1930s.... On the day he was born, in the province of Shantung, neighbors presented my missionary grandparents, the only Americans for miles, with noodles in great abundance and one hundred chicken eggs, in honor of their son's birth." To the young Anna Schoene, life in Shanghai is indeed magical. There are servants, a luxurious villa, a beautiful mother who smells like Chanel No. 5, and a young, handsome, polo-playing father. Unfortunately, her father is also a smuggler and speculator who loves his freewheeling life more than anything (or anyone) else. Despite warnings, Schoene refuses to leave Shanghai even after the Japanese invade, and his wife and child retreat to Los Angeles; later, he survives imprisonment and torture only to once again choose Shanghai over his family--this time with the Communists moving in.

Bo Caldwell's sepia-toned evocation of 1930s Shanghai is lovely and physical, and given the built-in drama of its setting, this first novel ought to have the vividness of a classic movie. Yet the characters remain oddly flat while world events swirl around them. Great chunks of historical exposition seem largely undigested, while Schoene's final change of heart fails to ring true. In a sense, however, these shortcomings are beside the point. The Distant Land of My Father is above all a tragic romance, albeit one with an unusual love interest. Schoene is so besotted with Shanghai that his wife and daughter are scarcely as real to him as the city itself. --Mary Park

About the Author:

Bo Caldwell has published short stories in numerous literary magazines. Her nonfiction writing includes a long-running series of personal essays in the Washington Post Magazine. She is a former Stegner Fellow in creative writing at Stanford University, and now lives in Northern California with her husband, novelist Ron Hansen, and her two children.

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