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Review: Pearl Buck of China, by Hilary Spurling


Pages: 304
Original date of publication: 2010
My edition: 2010 (Simon and Shuster)
Why I decided to read: found it while browsing in a bookstore in Philadelphia’s 3oth St. Station
How I acquired my copy: July 2011

Before reading this book, the only thing I’d really known about Pearl S. Buck was that she went to the same college as I went to. I’d also read The Good Earth many years ago, but didn’t care for it much (or maybe I didn’t understand it as well as I might otherwise have). Pearl Buck in China isn’t just a biography; it focuses mostly on how Pearl Buck’s childhood and adulthood in China influenced her writing and life.

It’s a very strong, well-organized book that sticks closely to what the author set out to do. The Good Earth is Pearl Buck’s best-known book, but this biography focuses on all of her fiction that deals with China. There are some sketchy places in the book when the author talks about the family dynamic between the Sydenstrickers, and again at the end when describing Pearl Buck’s later life. So many biographies focus on the facts that they forget about the person they’re dealing with; in this book, I really liked how the author managed to convey a sense of Pearl Buck’s personality while at the same time educating her reader on Pearl’s writing. I think Pearl Buck’s story gets overshadowed by the stories of the lives of authors who had more “interesting” lives, so it’s nice to see her getting some attention again. My one irritant about this book is that the author refers to the former Randolph-Macon Woman’s College as Randolph-Macon, when someone more familiar with the school would probably refer to it as R-MWC, for short, to avoid confusion with the college in Ashland, VA. But this is minor.

On a side note that has nothing to do with the author’s theme (but it’s interesting nonetheless): when you take a tour of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (now Randolph College), virtually one of the first things you’re told is that Pearl Buck went there. They are very proud of having her as an alumna, and rightly so. It’s funny to learn from this book that in reality, because Pearl felt like an outsider there, she didn’t enjoy her college experience, and therefore had selective memory about the whole thing. I found myself sympathizing with her when I read that! Authors often write about what they’re most comfortable with, and that was certainly true for Pearl Buck.

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