This book has touched me so deeply, that I cannot help feeling a strike of destiny in the way it came into my hands. I started reading it, blissfully unaware of both the plot and what it might be like. Pavilion of Women has proven to be such a beautiful reading surprise. I must have read it in one breath, or at least, that is what reading it felt like. Once I started it, I just couldn't stop reading. I cannot express how much I enjoyed this novel. It is a truly remarkable portrayal of a woman's soul. It's pure magic. Pavilion of Women has even managed to comfort me during a difficult hospital stay and I'm sure it's a novel I'll never forget.
But enough with the praises for now. Let's talk a bit about what this novel is about and what it is like. The novel's protagonist is Madam Wu. The subtitle of this novel is : A Novel of Life in the Women's Quarters, and that is what this book it about. The terms 'women's quarters' sounds historical, and indeed this book is set in the past, in a remote part of China before the outbreak of WW2. Besides following the life of Madam Wu, the protagonist, this novel also follows the life stories of other women who are close to her. The introduction of the novel describes both Madam Wu and her family dynamics. As she turns 40, Madam Wu longs for some 'me time'. On the surface, Madam Wu has everything she might want. A husband and children who love her, servants who worship her, a respected place in a community. Everyone seems to either admire or respect her. Madam Wu's family is the wealthiest in the area, and it seems to be a happy family. Madam Wu's sons are either married or too young to be married, but either way they seem respectable of their parents. One of Madam Wu's sons has married a girl older than himself, which poses technical problems in the selection of the daughter-in-law who will be in charge of the household once she turns 40, but there are no major problems, or so it seems.
Madam Wu, however, has quite a surprise prepared for everyone. She has decided to find her husband a concubine. When Madam Wu discloses this to her servant and later on friend, she received a hocked reaction. It is known to everyone that Madam Wu is beloved by her husband. What could possibly drive her to such a decision. Now, at the time book happens, concubines are still present but they are started to be seen as something better left to the past times. The historical reasons for concubines are interesting. As Madam Wu rationally explains, a concubine ensures that a man can have more children without endangering his wife. Having a baby after you turn 4o was a dangerous feet in those days. Many women have lost their lives that way. Some of them, or so it seems, have been relieved when a concubine came to take their place.
However, a concubine was always known to present a risk. Why risk disrupting a happy family? Why bring a stranger into a well functioning family? Madam Wu stubbornly clings to her decision, confident that she will able to make her husband see the benefit of her decision. Slowly, we learn more about their marriage. Mister Wu protests but finally agrees with this wife's decision. Madam Wu is known to be a flawless, capable and intelligent lady. Even in the traditional society of the time, Madam Wu commands respect. Moreover, in her home, this lady's word is the law. Madam Wu spends her first night alone. She has chosen a room close to her mother in law, on the pretext of being able to better take care of her, but in reality because it's the most private place in the house. Madam Wu speaks of tradition and fulfilling her role of a good wife, but it seems that what she is really interested in is independence. As I said, Madam Wu, needs some 'me time', she wakes up in the morning feeling happy, knowing that nobody will ever disturb her sleep by reaching up to her. It seems Madam Wu has planned everything in detail, she will select a suitable concubine, a simple village girl who will be grateful to be a part of such a rich and respected family. Her sons and daughters in laws are appealed by her decision. One of her son's wives tells Madam Wu how she had even protested and marched against the concubine tradition and urges her to give up on her decision.
Madam Wu chooses an orphaned village girl, feels a bit guilty by the fact that she had bought her like a cattle, but ensures herself she is actually doing her a favour. For a while, it seems that things might run smoothly. Madam Wu concentrates on marrying another soon to her neighbour's daughter. Madam Wu's intelligence and sophistication allow her to be one step of a time. As she manages to secure more time for herself, Madam Wu reflects on her life. Her father in law loved and respected her, but warned her not to read certain books while she is young. Her late father in law saw that an intelligence of her sort might make her unhappy, and urged her to have patience with his son, who was spoiled by his mother and ended up being less intelligent that Madam Wu. Madam Wu has lived her life fulfilling her duty, but now she wants the freedom to be by herself, to devote herself to learning, to have time to read those book. What she doesn't realize is that she cannot be free while others around her are not free. In other words, Madam Wu will have to pay a price for buying that poor village orphan girl who now turns to be unhappy with the new arrangement and begs to leave. One after another, family crisis take place, and Madam Wu realizes that for all her sophisticated and intelligence, she has much to learn. Madam Wu will not be able to help her family until the managed to help herself, and vice versa.
“You are free when you gain back yourself,” Madame Wu said. “You can be as free within these walls as you could be in the whole world. And how could you be free if, however far you wander, you still carry inside yourself the constant thought of him? See where you belong in the stream of life. Let it flow through you, cool and strong. Do not dam it with your two hands, lest he break the dam and so escape you. Let him go free, and you will be free.”