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The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry: A Book Review

The Courtesan: A Novel 
Author: Alexandra Curry
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Dutton
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: A timeless novel of one woman who bridged two worlds in a tumultuous era of East meets West

      The Courtesan is an astonishing tale inspired by the real life of a woman who lived and loved in the extraordinary twilight decades of the Qing dynasty. To this day, Sai Jinhua is a legend in her native land of China, and this is her story, told the way it might have been.

     The year is 1881. Seven-year-old Jinhua is left an orphan, alone and unprotected after her mandarin father’s summary execution for the crime of speaking the truth. For seven silver coins, she is sold to a brothel-keeper and subjected to the worst of human nature. Will the private ritual that is her father’s legacy and the wise friendship of the crippled brothel maid be enough to sustain her? 

     When an elegant but troubled scholar takes Jinhua as his concubine, she enters the close world of his jealous first wife. Yet it is Jinhua who accompanies him--as Emissary to the foreign devil nations of Prussia, Austro-Hungary, and Russia--on an exotic journey to Vienna. As he struggles to play his part in China's early, blundering diplomatic engagement with the western world, Jinhua’s eyes and heart are opened to the irresistible possibilities of a place that is mesmerizing and strange, where she will struggle against the constraints of tradition and her husband’s authority and seek to find “Great Love.”

      Sai Jinhua is an altered woman when she returns to a changed and changing China, where a dangerous clash of cultures pits East against West. The moment arrives when Jinhua’s western sympathies will threaten not only her own survival, but the survival of those who are most dear to her. 

     A book that shines a small light on the large history of China’s relationship with the West, The Courtesan is a novel that distills, with the economy of a poem, a woman’s journey of untold miles to discern what is real and abiding.

     My Review: The Courtesan is based on the life of Sia Jinhua. She is known as a national hero of China. During the Boxer’s Rebellion, she saved many Chinese from being beheaded. Many books have been written about her, and television shows have featured her. This book chronicles her life and tells the story of a young girl who is lost and must find her way in the world.

     When Jinhua was seven, her father was beheaded, leaving her an orphan. Her father’s wife, who regards Jinhua as a thorn in her sight, sells her into prostitution to get rid of her. Years later, she becomes a concubine to an emissary to the government. When the emissary is on a mission to Austria, he takes Jinhua with him. There she is fascinated by the cultural differences. When the emissary has to make a short trip to a diplomatic mission in Russia, Jinhua starts to explore the city on her own. On one of her outings, she meets a count and falls in love with him.

     Jinhua’s story is very sad. Her life is very unhappy. The only person that truly loved her was her father, and throughout her life she deeply mourns him. She copes through the trials in her life by telling stories and pretending that her father is with her. She is also a very strong woman because she is determined to fight for her own happiness. She has dreams and is persistent in making them come true.

     Overall, this story is about a girl’s journey to find love and happiness. This story takes place in mostly in the character’s head, and I would have liked more dialogue. This story was an emotional read, and I felt for Jinhua as she goes through her pain and her triumphs. I did like how we get to meet a few famous people, particularly Empress Elisabeth of Austria. I thought the writing was beautiful, and I loved how the author depicted the differences between China and Austria. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Chinese history and for fans of Memoirs of a Geisha.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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