Book Review: Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah

Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter is a sympathetic look at the life of a 5th child and second daughter of a wealthy man in China before and during the communist take-over. Add in a wicked stepmother and the already burdensome child becomes the target of scorn and abuse for most of her life. However, calling her an “unwanted Chinese daughter” turns out to be a bit of a misnomer. After all, most unwanted daughters in China have been literally discarded to die in the streets, wallow in orphanages, or eek out livings as prostitutes. While a second daughter in a Chinese family may not be seen as a blessing, she was at least fed, clothed, sheltered, and even sent to University in England to study medicine. While her parents are shown to be pretty horrible people, her life could have been much worse.

The strength of this novel, though, is her placement of the events of her life in the context of history. Her life in China takes place before the communist take-over, when Shanghai was divided into various mini-cities occupied by British, French, American, and other “concessions”. Most of her family flees to Hong Kong when Mao comes to power, but some stay behind. Some of her dates are skewed and her math doesn’t always add up (she goes to England at 17, stays 11 years, but says she is only 26 when she returns to Hong Kong), but almost any Chinese life during this turbulent time is fascinating.

I would give this book a 2 out of 5. Her childhood is pathetic and sympathetic in the extreme. Poor little Adeline = angel. Evil stepmother Niang = the devil. There is little complexity or reason for the actions of either party. But in the eyes of a child, the world usually is black-and-white, and that is the view point this book is written from. However, when placed in historical context, the simplistic story is set in a vibrant and dynamic world and becomes almost a character of its own.