On this cool fall morning, as I sip my chai tea, I am reflecting on last week’s reading and yesterday’s book club meeting. I wonder if the sudden shift in weather, from very warm and humid at the beginning of the week to cool and windy, real fall-like weather, by the end of the week has left anyone else feeling a bit out-of-sorts. I will blame the weather on the poor book club attendance last week - my grade 5/6 book club members didn’t even come out for their meeting on Wednesday!! Oh well, it was the first meeting and there was also the Terry Fox run that day, so we’ll just try again next week.
My volunteer book group was scheduled to meet yesterday to discuss The Binding Chair, or a Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison. I got an email from my newest member on Friday saying that she had a scheduling conflict and would not be able to make it. Then when I got home Friday night, I had a voicemail message from one of the original members of the group letting me know that she would not be able to make it, but that she loved the book and she thanked me for putting it on the list, which was very sweet. Then when I checked my email later that night, there was a message from another member saying that she would be coming but would not be able to make it until around 11am (we start at 10am). Another member is away with her family so I knew she would not be there. But I still showed up on time, in case anyone else came out. Nearly an hour later, the email message member showed up (good thing I brought a book to read!), and we had a great discussion about those Little Free Libraries that are popping up everywhere these days - what a great idea!! And about cleaning house and organizing - it seems that this is the season to change over from summer to winter, including garages, yards and gardens. Finally we got around to discussing the book. Then, about 11:30am, my second and final member showed up to join the discussion. Whew! It was a small but interesting group discussion. The Binding Chair opens with May, an elderly Chinese woman in Nice in 1927, trying to find a swimming instructor. Some applicants she dismisses for a variety of reasons, and when she finally settles on a young man, we are treated to a detailed description of her first lessons. The reader is then transported back 50 years, a time when May, then a 5 year old girl named Chao-tsing, is subjected by her grandmother to the ancient ritual of foot binding. Although painful, she is told not to cry out, that this process is necessary for her to secure a good marriage. She grows up and, by age fourteen, is betrothed to a wealthy silk merchant, who turns out to be a sadist with three other wives. When she can no longer endure his treatment, she escapes and runs away to Shanghai, where she changes her name and becomes a prostitute in a brothel that serves only white men. She has a plan - find a wealthy European husband and make an easy life for herself. Nothing could have shocked her more than to find this in Arthur Cohen, an Australian Jewish philanthropist who goes to the brothel to emancipate a victim of foot binding, only to fall in love with May and her tiny lotus feet. She becomes part of the extended household in Shanghai which is made up of Dick Benjamin and his wife Dolly, Arthur’s sister, and their two daughters Alice and Cecily. May and Alice form a close bond, and we as readers begin to understand this bond more as family secrets are revealed and relationships are explored. There is also an unusual Russian component to this novel, as readers are swept across the world from Shanghai to Paris and London, and the Russian plains, and back and forth across decades, in this complex novel about the universal search for a home and a place to belong, and about the desire to influence the direction of our lives. We discussed May as a character, and determined that she was strong and smart, a woman who did what she had to do to get where she wanted to be. But we also pointed out that appearances can be deceiving, and if May appeared to be a woman who has led an enviable life, that may only be because this is what she wished to project. We discussed the theme of lost children, and swimming, and teeth (you’ll have to read the book to figure that one out!). I’ve read this book once before, in July 2003 (remember I have a list of everything I’ve read in chronological order for the past 23 years!), and I remembered it to be a good book, but I forgot how much sex there was in it, and not just allusions to the straight-forward kind, either! So I thought that perhaps this was not the best choice for my group, but the message I got from the one member who could not make it reassured me, as she said she loved it, that she learned many historical things from it, and that she responded very emotionally to May’s plight. The person who came out for the meeting was disturbed by how many sexual scenes were described in such detail in the book, which was exactly how I felt. When I was reading it, I thought “This would be a really great book if it didn’t have so many gratuitous sexual scenes”. But then I remembered the author’s own experiences, which I only know about because I read an early memoir of hers, The Kiss, which was given to me by a friend many years ago. In this memoir, Harrison writes about the sexual relationship she and her father began when he came back into her life in her early 20s, after being estranged for most of her childhood. So that may have influenced the content of this early novel. Also, when I looked up information on foot binding, I realized that a major reason for the continued practice of this ritual for centuries was because it was considered erotic. And, considering the time period when this novel was set, women did not have much of a role in society that was not sexual in nature. So, while we both felt that there was too much emphasis on that aspect, we agreed that it could not really have been avoided. Since the story and characters, even the minor ones, in this book are so interesting, I would recommend it with this caveat: be prepared for mature content.
OK, that’s all I have for today. Enjoy the rest of the weekend!
Bye for now…