A Certain Smile
Judith Michael’s new book is about a clothing designer who goes to China on a business trip. In just a few weeks, love, and China, change her forever. In the nineteen eighties I traveled on business quite a bit and many of my trips were to China and Asia. For this reason, the premise of A Certain Smile intrigued me. I was not disappointed. The husband and wife writing team that makes up “Judith Michael” did their homework and did it well. Many of the people and conversations that crop in this book felt very familiar indeed and that made for an enjoyable read.
A Certain Smile opens when Miranda Graham and Yuan Li meet at Beijing Airport. Miranda is caught in the crush at a taxi stand and Li, seeing that she may never get a cab, shows her how to push her way through. Miranda is grateful but is surprised when Li suggests that they meet the next day before she goes to her business meetings. In the next few days Li can’t seem to see enough of her, and Miranda, a forty-year old widow and mother of two children, is wary of the attention. She soon learns, however, that the fifty-four year old Lee is the son of an American soldier stationed in China during World War II. For this reason Li speaks perfect English and has always wanted to know more about Americans.
Things initially go smoothly for the couple, who do a lot of sightseeing and plan a weekend trip to Xi’an. Then Miranda innocently delivers a letter given to her by a Chinese friend. This friend lives in Boulder, Colorado and left China after the Tienmien Square uprising. Miranda is so unaware of the realities of China that she has no idea of the ramifications of this errand.
It is Li who feels the brunt of her mistake. A successful businessman and engineer, he is called in for questioning about the American with whom he has been spending so much time. The plot thickens when Judith Michael introduces Li’s son Sheng. Sheng, a grown man, is involved in some underhanded business dealings and his partners are leaning on him to try to take over Li’s construction company. Soon there is a plot to take advantage of Li’s troubles.
I was on the lookout for mistakes in the tone of the conversations between the American and Chinese characters but found very few. The discussions between Li and Miranda comparing American and Chinese always ring true. Both occasionally fall into the trap of trying to defend all things Chinese and all things American. Miranda meets business people and, at first, is put off by their abruptness and, by American custom, lack of manners. The Chinese business people jump right into the problems with no time wasted on flattery or small talk. I know first hand that this is a shock to an American, in part because we have been taught to believe that it is Americans who are “too direct.” Miranda learns that China is not Japan and the Chinese have a different set of manners than the ones we anticipate.
Another good thing is that Judith Michael avoids the old James Clavell trap of racist stereotypes. The Chinese villains are not “inscrutable.” Furthermore Judith Michael gives us a pretty good explanation of how the system of crime works and how the government is as involved as anyone else in the corruption.
Ironically it was the American in the book, Miranda, who gave me the most trouble. Judith Michael makes her so ignorant of Chinese American relations, not to mention American history, that it can be annoying. When Miranda comes to China she keeps privately referring to the Chinese as “foreigners.” She tells Li that she has never heard of the orphans that American soldiers leave behind. Judith Michael, of course is making Miranda ignorant so that she can change. She does change but not before I was wondering what on earth Li saw in this hick.
Li is a delightful hero. Though he is thoroughly Chinese, he has always admired the romanticism of America. Not only does he fall in love with Miranda, he tells her right away with a sweetness that American women will envy.
A Certain Smile ends poignantly, rather than happily. Readers who demand a happy ending should take note. The ending is logical however, and underlines the point of the story which is the changes that love and China make in Miranda. At the end of the book Li tells Miranda that she has “a certain smile,” that she never had before. I closed the book with a few tears, very happy that I had read it.