NOTE: The book lists family names before personal names, and I have followed suit.
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
There is a moment in the short, torturous existence of Song Leiyin when you know with absolute, inescapable clarity how she is going to die. The fact of her death is unavoidable – in fact, it’s spelled out in the synopsis – but the method is unknown until she points out the rotting rails and banisters in her house and you go, yep, that’ll do it. I say “short” because she’s dead by twenty-four, and “torturous” because she’s a trial and a half both alive and otherwise. I’ve read this book three times now and I swear I haven’t spent this much time wanting to slap a protagonist since I read Fifty Shades of Grey.
Three Souls delves into the Limbo-like afterlife of Song Leiyin, a young woman whose life was abruptly cut short following a series of increasingly boneheaded decisions. (Sorry, Leiyin, but I’d be slightly less judgmental if those decisions had been just a shade more intelligent.) Denied entrance to the official afterlife, Leiyin watches her own funeral before being forced to sit through a detailed replay of the final seven years of her life, also known as the worst movie ever. This literally is the 1935 Chinese equivalent of receiving a citation that includes a link to a video showing you your traffic violation. Her viewing is proctored by her three souls – yin, yang, and hun – who alternately lecture, comfort, enlighten, and shame her. Yin manifests as a teenaged schoolgirl, yang as a crotchety old man, hun as a shining being of light. Neither their existence nor their purpose is ever really explained, but I suppose we can think of them as her three shoulder angels.
Born to the wealthy Song clan in pre-revolutionary China, Leiyin is raised in comfort on her family’s sprawling estate in the city of Changchow. She has four older siblings – Changyin, Gaoyin, Sueyin, and Tongyin – and is babied accordingly. She also has a stepmother, who is her father’s concubine (but not his official second wife), and a younger half-sister, Fei-Fei. Despite the rising dangers presented by a country increasingly divided by warring political factions, both foreign and domestic, Leiyin’s early life is very stable: at seventeen she is a stellar student on the cusp of graduating high school, and she and her best friend, Wang Nanmei, dream of attending university and becoming teachers to the rural poor. Leiyin’s original goal is to emulate the highly educated Madame Sun Yat-sen, but all of that goes up in smoke the minute she lays eyes on Yen Hanchin, a Communist poet. He’s poor as fuck and he has some ideas that are frowned upon by polite society, but he’s hot as hell, so it goes without saying that Leiyin immediately vows to give up everything she has in exchange for just one iota of his attention. While she remains determined to attend university and become a teacher, her motive shifts to center entirely around Hanchin, and she builds an imaginary life for herself based on their brief, steamy encounters, never realizing that he always stops short of offering any sort of commitment.
All of this is observed and processed by the present-day Leiyin (who is dead) and her three therapists during a series of somewhat pointless conversations, in which they explain both the scenes she’s just watched and her thought processes while she was still alive. She sometimes gleans new insights from her side-by-side CliffsNotes, such as the realization that her second-eldest brother Tongyin was also in love with Hanchin, but these conversations are mostly repetitive and unnecessary. In any case, Leiyin and her souls continue to watch as her living self fights to attend university, with the single-minded goal of eventually marrying Hanchin. (Again, I would be 1000000% less judgmental if it were just about the education and not about getting a man to like her. If this is everybody’s idea of an intelligent, strong-willed female character, we’re fucked.) Following an almost-successful escape attempt, her father betroths her in a fit of rage to Lee Baizhen, the gentle-hearted son of a landed but deeply impoverished family in the dusty backwater town of Pinghu. Her new in-laws are well-meaning, but her father-in-law is completely incompetent as far as money goes, and Leiyin learns that her dowry is the only thing keeping their small family afloat. Meanwhile, her husband is largely illiterate and physically unimpressive, and she spends most of her waking hours comparing him to Hanchin. It doesn’t help that Baizhen is crap in bed, but that’s the least of Leiyin’s problems.
The first months of marriage are difficult, but Leiyin finds a sort of contentment and even a gentle happiness with the birth of her daughter, Weilan. Boy, I wish I could tell you the book ended there. Unfortunately, nature abhors a vacuum, and so it is with fiction, because Hanchin comes back and ruins whatever peace Leiyin was able to build for herself. After smuggling himself into Pinghu, he seduces Leiyin and manipulates her into hiding the Communist manifesto he’s been writing. Despite his refusal to tell her anything, she sneaks a look at his train tickets while he’s sleeping and memorizes his travel plans, then reluctantly says goodbye to him, with the expectation that he will send for her when he is safely back in Communist territory. Over the next several months, her hard-won contentment erodes even further: she discovers she is pregnant with Hanchin’s child; her in-laws’ house and finances continue to deteriorate; and Tongyin comes to visit, and starts pressuring her for information on Hanchin’s whereabouts. The final straw comes when she learns that Little Ming, Weilan’s nanny, is also pregnant with Hanchin’s child, and she banishes her from the house in a rage. She then tells Tongyin about Hanchin’s travel route, thinking that Hanchin will be arrested by the Nationalist secret police. When she learns that he was instead executed by firing squad, her shock causes her to fall through a rotting veranda rail and down two stories to the ground, where she dies.
The rest of the book follows Leiyin and her souls as she tries to figure out how to make amends for her role, however indirect, in Hanchin’s death. After a months-long struggle to effect any change at all, she learns through trial and error that she can enter people’s dreams as an observer, but that she can only talk to them if they dream about her. In this strange, indirect manner, she is able to prevent one of the housemaids from being raped by the substitute gardener, but her chances of making amends grow slimmer when Baizhen marries Meichiu, another young woman with a substantial dowry. She spends another several months observing ineffectually as Meichiu settles into the house and begins to turn the family’s fortunes around, while the household begins to forget about Leiyin. With a bit of luck, however, Leiyin is able to persuade her former mother-in-law to rehire Little Ming as a wet nurse for Meichiu’s son, and she also gets Baizhen to hire a tutor for Weilan. The tutor turns out to be Leiyin’s friend Nanmei, now a Communist teacher and Hanchin’s widow, who was connected to the job by Tongyin as part of his efforts to locate Hanchin’s manifesto. Realizing that Tongyin also wants to give Weilan to a pedophile in order to buy his own safety from the Nationalist secret police, Leiyin enters Nanmei’s dreams and tells her where to find the manifesto, and begs her to prevent Weilan’s betrothal by any means necessary. Nanmei takes her at her word and arranges for Tongyin’s assassination. As a final act of atonement for her role in the murder of her own brother, Leiyin persuades her former family to clear out of Pinghu in time to avoid the bombs accidentally dropped by a Japanese plane.
I’ve left out a lot because the book is intricate, but I promise everything hangs together nicely when you actually read it. Despite everything I’m about to say, I keep coming back to this book because the setting and the story are absorbing and well executed. All of the food sounds really good, and I am always starving by the time I finish the book. The writing is pretty good, particularly for a debut novel. There’s a few things I wish were a bit better, but for the most part I always enjoy Chang’s storytelling. I just have one question: why is Leiyin so stupid? Why do we spend the whole book being told how clever she is when she doesn’t have an ounce of sense? She is stubborn, self-absorbed, and capable of making the stupidest decisions while remaining completely convinced of her own good judgment. Worse, she is impulsive, and never gives so much as a passing thought to the inevitable consequences of those decisions. This doesn’t get much better as she gets older, or even when she’s dead. Even as a ghost with the ability to eavesdrop on everybody and see everything, more or less, she’s so damn slow on the uptake. After three readings, I still have no idea why she just can’t figure out that Baizhen has to get married again. I don’t know why she keeps dragging her feet on her penance and resisting the idea of moving on when her souls have told her multiple times that she has less time than she thinks. I don’t know why, at the end, she finds it so hard to understand why Hanchin’s death has trapped her in Limbo. I especially don’t know how she could have built her whole academic future and career around a man she’d just met without ever stopping to question herself, or show just the slightest hint of self-awareness. I don’t care how hot he is. If Leiyin is as smart as the book keeps telling us she is, there should have been a point where she realized how off-kilter her goals had become.
The thing is, I really feel for her in some respects. I wanted her to go to university and become a teacher, even though she very clearly has no idea what rural life will be like and doesn’t seem to know what anything costs. (Or, as I call it, Princess Jasmine Syndrome.) I didn’t want her to have to marry Baizhen, and I also happen to know that under her circumstances I would have been even less gracious in my new life with this new husband I didn’t ask for, though he does build her a library and I feel like that probably would’ve worked on me. I liked that she tries to make the best of things, after a fashion; her decision to teach Baizhen and Little Ming to read, and her subsequent success, are particularly moving. A lot of her circumstances are not her fault, and I certainly don’t blame her for her father’s decision to marry her off, or for her own powerlessness. I don’t blame her for trying to run away to university; in her place I might have done the same, or tried. But she could’ve been smarter about it. Like her three baffled souls, I have no idea how she managed to grow up without ever realizing that her stepmother has a tremendously level head and a knack for getting things done. If she hadn’t waited until after her own death to figure out how much her older sisters relied on their stepmother’s advice, her life might have gone a bit differently.
This is the base of my problem with Leiyin: she’s so determinedly one-track that she can only ever see one way of doing things, and it never occurs to her to look for additional resources or allies. She will chart one solution and follow it to its bitter end, all in service to her one goal, which is to be with Hanchin. In the beginning, she wants to go to university so she can become a teacher and help China modernize. After she meets Hanchin, she wants to go to university so she can impress Hanchin, become a teacher so she can marry Hanchin, and use her dowry to set up schools in the countryside because she thinks that’s what Hanchin will want to do. She tells Gaoyin that her entire future depends on her being able to go to university, but only because she thinks that’s the way to Hanchin’s heart. She schemes and plots and sulks her way through the book, all for the sake of her imaginary marriage to Hanchin. This is a major problem. This dude is not worth it. I get that he’s the one who got away and she never really gets over him, and I get that he happens to catch her in a lonely, vulnerable position when she’s six years into a dissatisfying marriage, but damn. She could’ve just had her hot girl summer and then said goodbye, and nobody would’ve been the wiser.
And, yes, I know Leiyin is only seventeen and teenaged dreams are hard to get rid of, but there comes a point where this all becomes more ridiculous than relatable. I don’t like that her dream of university gets tangled up with her dream of Hanchin, and I don’t find it entirely believable. She could have dreamed about both without centering her career plans around a man who despises her. It bothers me that she throws away everything she has, everything that makes her who she is, for the sake of a childhood crush. It bothers me that she spends even just a second thinking about taking Weilan out of a loving family in order to pursue a wandering, dangerous life with Hanchin. It bothers me that she reads about Chinese politics but somehow doesn’t know enough to guess how dangerous the Nationalist secret police really are, and it really bothers me that, after everything she knows and everything she’s done to Little Ming, she has the gall to complain that Little Ming’s son was given a “common, graceless” name. This is a line that should have been cut, because it doesn’t have anything to do with the story, and it doesn’t even qualify as character development. It just proves that Leiyin is a snotty stuck-up bitch, and I already knew that. Every time I think I’m sympathizing with her more, I remember that line and I get mad again. I don’t even think her “rescue” of Little Ming should count as a good deed, because Little Ming would never have been in danger if Leiyin hadn’t kicked her to the curb in the first place.
My biggest takeaway with this book is that, as usual, I am tired. I am so tired of reading about women who are supposed to be smart but keep making stupid decisions for the sake of advancing the plot. There are aspects of the book that I like and some that I love, but at the end of the day there’s no story without Leiyin and her terrible fucking decisions. I wouldn’t say she’s evil, or even particularly spiteful or malicious. She genuinely tries to do the best thing for her family, and she tries to do the best thing for herself and for her country too, but she doesn’t get any of it quite right. She doesn’t have any real political convictions; she just wants to stay out of it and keep her family safe, which is fair considering the chaos of Chinese politics. It just would’ve been nice if she’d figured all that out before she died.