Monday, 9 May 2016

The House of Wives

Author: Simon Choa-Johnston
Genre: Historical Fiction, Memoir
Type: Trade Paperback
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Publisher: Penguin Group - Random House Publishing
First Published: May 3, 2016
First Line: "A four-year-old's encounter with the devil is different from a grown-up's."

Book Description from GoodReads: Two women compete for the affections of their opium merchant husband in a tale of friendship, fortune and rivalry in colonial Hong Kong

In 1862, a young Jew from Calcutta named Emanuel Belilios leaves his dutiful wife Semah and sets sail for Hong Kong to make his fortune in the opium trade. There, he grows into a prosperous and respectable merchant, eventually falling in love with his Chinese business partner's daughter Pearl, a delicate beauty twenty years his junior. As a wedding present, he builds for her the most magnificent mansion in Hong Kong. Then Semah arrives unannounced from Calcutta to take her place as mistress of the house...and life will change irrevocably for all of them.

Inspired by the lives of Choa-Johnston's ancestors, The House of Wives is an unforgettable novel about the machinations of the early opium trade, and about two remarkable women determined to secure a dynasty for their children in the tumultuous British Crown colony.


My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

My Review: What drew me initially to this book is the idea of two women of different cultures, in 19th century Hong Kong, finding out that they share a husband.  Talk about family drama!  What was even more amazing is that author Simon Choa-Johnston based his book on his own unique family history.

The reader is pulled into the personal turmoil of both women as they learn to live with each other and their families, with limited success.  Choa-Johnston does a good job giving the wives Semah and Pearl very distinct voices and as a reader I could sympathize with the struggle of each of the women.  It was sad to think of all of the years wasted that the two women could have been supportive and close but at the same time sharing one's husband wasn't something that either of them signed up for.

While I found the premise quite interesting, for me there was a distinct difference between the first two-thirds of the book and the remaining third.  The first two-thirds, as we meet the wives and see how Emanuel's business takes off, was quite interesting.  Choa-Johnston brings to life the Jewish and Chinese cultures as well as the energy of Hong Kong.  I'd rate that first part of the book a solid four stars with the remainder of the book dropping to three stars.  It was still interesting but I found the energy to wane which was surprising since it's at that point when the wives come together and I thought there'd be emotional fireworks. During the last third of the book there were also large chunks of time that were quickly explained away but this resulted in me not having as much of an emotional connection to the wives, and even less with Emanuel as the story began its conclusion.

Emanuel came to a very unique and different solution to his multiple wife issue which was quite different than how others had handled similar situations during that time and makes for a very unique story.  Choa-Johnston's writing was quite descriptive in regards to the era and cultures and I appreciated that he included a description of his family history at the back of the book to give his readers more background information.  Overall, this was a good read.  It was an interesting look at different cultures, the author's unique family history and the power and strength of women.

Disclaimer: My sincere thanks to Penguin Group - Random House Publishing for providing me with a complimentary paperback copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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