Book Review: Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine
Ling lives in China with her surgeon father and traditional Chinese medicine doctor mother. She enjoys her English lessons with her father and hates that her mother makes her eat things like seaweed and tofu. She hears talk about a revolution, and it comes home when her father’s study is converted into a one-room apartment for Comrade Li. Everything in her apartment complex starts to get scary with speakers blaring Mao’s teachings all day and more and more rules, but when her upstairs neighbor, Dr. Wong, disappears, Ling really starts to realize that this revolution is no dinner party.
I read some really amazing books set in China in undergrad. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress springs to mind, so I came in to this book expecting to love it. I found myself struggling at first, however. I believe it’s the narration style. It is a child’s voice, but it is told in the first person past tense. That would make sense if it was an adult or even an older child looking back, but the narration doesn’t know any more than the child in the moment does. Again, that would make sense if it was the present tense, but it isn’t. I found it all very distancing, and it made it difficult to get into the story. An afterword informed me that this is a “fictionalized” look at real events in the author’s life. This explains the narration style, but I really wish she would have just told her memoir. Imagine, she really lived through revolutionary China with a Western-educated surgeon father. That’s such an excellent story in and of itself; I don’t see why she felt the need to fictionalize it.
Once I got past the narration style, I really appreciated two elements of this story. One is that it takes a completely unglamorized look at what any massive political change looks like to a child. Through the eyes of a child who doesn’t understand politics, it just all looks so silly. At one point she says she doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t wear flowered dresses if she likes them. Reading that makes you stop and think. It really should be that simple, the way a child sees it. People should be able to do the things they enjoy, yet adults make everything so painful and complicated.
The other element, and what is the core of the story, is that this is really a story about a father/daughter relationship, and I have a serious soft spot for those. I think they aren’t looked at in a positive light in literature enough, and Compestine presents it in such a beautiful, realistic manner.
However, even with these two positive elements, I have to say that I don’t see this story sticking in my head the way other non-western fiction has. It feels like a one-time read to me. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case, except that the ending is so abrupt. I feel that Compestine left the whole story untold, maybe because she was at a loss between fiction and memoir.
Overall, if you can enjoy the narration style and like non-western father/daughter stories, you will find your time reading this book well-spent.
3.5 out of 5 stars