Lost in Translation
Ah literary fiction! Quality books in beautiful covers! The blurb on the back of Lost in Translation makes it sound like a romance novel, but the stunning art work and handsome binding let you know it is something better. Right? This is a book you can be proud to read on the subway or keep on your coffee table. That is, you would be proud if Lost in Translation was as compelling as it is literary.
Our story opens with Alice Mannegan, a thirty-six year old English translator in Beijing. A brilliant and troubled woman, Alice desperately wishes that she could actually be Chinese. This fact shapes almost every aspect of her life. On this night Alice heads out to pick up a Chinese man for a one-night stand. In the course of the first chapter we watch Alice find her man, sleep with him and leave him with a bogus name and phone number. Alice finds Chinese men, and only Chinese men, erotically satisfying.
Shortly thereafter, Alice begins working with archeologist, Adam Spencer, who is searching for the lost archeological treasure, Peking man. At the insistence of a Chinese government official, they are joined by two Chinese archeologists, and set off to Mongolia. One of the Chinese archeologists, Dr. Lin Shiyang, is the male protagonist of the story. As this is not a romance novel, but a story about Alice, Lin Shiyang is not a terribly important character until the final third of the book.
I enjoy novels about things other than romance and I have a particular interest in China having visited there, on business, a number of times. But in spite of my special interest in the subject I found this book to be an extremely slow read. The writer gives us very little idea of where the story heading. For the first hundred and fifty pages I thought that Adam Spencer might be the hero! How could I not think this? We learn everything about this boring, whining man: his failures in academia, his disastrous marriage, and his shortcomings as a father. Another thing that makes for tedium; there are so many points of view that I stopped counting. The reader spends an inordinate amount of time in the heads of people who are not central to the story and who are also not interesting enough to help us forget that fact.
When Alice and Lin Shiyang finally begin to talk (after almost two hundred pages), the story picks up. Lin Shiyang is waiting for the return of his wife, who disappeared during the Cultural Revolution over twenty years ago. His loyalty toward her shows the value placed on commitment. The love scenes are subtle but beautiful and I wanted Alice and Lin Shiyang to be together. In a moving statement, Lin Shiyang explains to Alice that a Chinese man, when he has made love openly, giving his heart and body, expects that he will “talk about love,” or go to the government to ask for permission to marry. I was enchanted by this passage and the fascinating contrast between Lin Shiyang’s perspective and stereotypes of western men.
Though the love story enlivens the book, Nicole Mones saw fit not to give readers the happy ending that the story logically demands. (They were in love. They had resolved their differences. What would real people do?) Instead we get the ambiguous, hackneyed ending so popular in modern novels. Alice finds herself. At one point she says, “there are so many things that I have to sort out. Then maybe I can really know love.” Groan. What is this, straight from the Literary Fiction Phrase Book? Alice leaves the country to be with her dying father. Shiyang tells her he will wait for her, “but not forever.” There is a good chance that she will come back. But, if she loves him, why leave it to chance? While this is all very sophisticated, it makes no sense in light of what has gone before.
I greatly enjoyed about a third of Lost in Translation which is what made the book such a frustrating read. If you are fascinated with the interplay of American and Chinese culture, this book might prove interesting. But if you balk over modern “literary” novels that seemingly short-change romance conclusions, better pass this one up.