Books & Literature

Book Review: Lady Tan’s Circle of Women, by Lisa See

HISTORICAL FICTION: In 15th century China two women are born under the same sign, the Metal Snake. But life will take the friends on very different paths.

A wonderfully woven book that is rich in detail without becoming tedious.

Feature image credit: Simon & Schuster

Inspired by the true story of a woman physician from 15th-century China, Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is the latest historical fiction piece by New York Times bestselling author Lisa See.

This book explores the precarious livelihoods of women throughout the Ming dynasty. As a child, in her grandparents’ elite home, the Mansion of Golden Light, Tan Yunxian detachedly observes how quickly a woman’s life can change when a concubine falls over, only to be suddenly cast out to the street.

As an adult and as time goes on, she starts to feel compassion towards these women, whose status is beneath hers. Within the confines of her husband’s family estate, the Garden of Fragrant Delights, she finds her desire and ability to treat female illnesses is restricted by her mother-in-law, who forbids it. As a lady living within the confines of a palace, her job is only to produce sons for the kingdom. Amongst women pioneers like Yunxian are the women who aimed to uphold the existing status quo, and the forerunner men that support the female pioneers by subtly breaking the rules of the patriarchy.

For Yunxian, her grandfather was one such man. He had supported her grandmother to practice medicine, and then turned a blind eye to his wife teaching Yunxian and her friend (of lower status) Mei-Ling medicine and midwifery. The use of multiple herbs and explanations of the holistic Chinese approach to healing the body, who consider that qi (energy) and emotions are just as important to treat as the physical symptoms, is well captured. The fortitude of the women who practice and excel at their craft despite the social backlash is also intricately detailed. Some of it is hard to hear, particularly the excruciating foot binding practice that required ongoing maintenance for every lady of status.

Although at times Yunxian’s life feels oppressive, her patience leads her through and she becomes a leader, breaking the barriers and doing things her way, when the time is right. I really liked the strength of her character as she never stops believing in her values and attitudes, takes criticism under her chin, and continues following her own path.

There are four parts in this novel. Each part covers a one-to-two year period in the protagonist’s life. Part one is set in the year 1469, part two during the years 1476 to 1477, part three during the years 1490 to1492, and part four from 1510 to 1511. The era was a time of foot binding in China, and when lineage was important. The pressure to birth sons reminded me very much of the Tudor dynasty in England where strategic marriages, regular in-house betrayal, and the segregation of elite women from commoners was ever-present. Although we see the circumstances change for the personal space that Yunxian occupies, it appears little changes from a systematic point of view during this time.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is suitable for all audiences despite the larger thematic content, as it is a story primarily about two best friends, and the different paths their lives take. See as an author has layered the book in such a way that you can enjoy it as a simple story, or one with much depth.

Reviewed by Rebecca Wu

The views expressed in this review belong to the author and not Glam Adelaide, its affiliates, or employees.

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster
Released: July 2023
RRP: $32.99

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