NO SPOILERS! NO SPOILERS! I HATE SPOILERS AND HAVE PURPOSELY WRITTEN THIS IN A WAY THAT WON'T RUIN IT FOR YOU. NO SPOILERS! NO SPOILERS!
I'm stuck up when it comes to books. I only buy sure fire classics--after all there are so many of them which never disappoint--and other books that I am confident will be a great read. But once in a while I try and buy a book by an author I've never heard of if the reading of a random page or two in the bookstore grabs me. The latter was the case with Anchee Min's first book, Red Azalea with the added draw that it had a gold sticker on it saying it had won some notable prize and been signed by the author. I am the least likely to discover the next great author of timeless classics, but this time I may have gotten lucky.
How good is Red Azalea that it prompted me to read this, her third book about fifteen years later? After enjoying Red Azalea I lent it (which I rarely do) to a friend of mine who was studying at Boston University. The next day, when I visited her, as soon as I opened the door she threw it at me.
"Damn you!" She yelled. "I was up all night reading that book! I couldn't put it down until I was finished despite all the work I had to do! Get it out of here!"
Red Azalea being her first book, having learned English only six years earlier, and a memoir, I thought maybe it was just that her personal story was so rivetting and that maybe she had a lot of help in writing it, but Pearl of China proves that Anchee Min is a great storyteller, period.
In this book, she tells the story of Pearl Buck, who was the child of Christian missionary parents spending her childhood in China and an activist who was more familiar, loving, and patriotic of her second heritage in Asia than she was of her native one. I leave it to you to look up who Pearl Buck was on Wikipedia or whatever your favorite resource may be, but for the purposes of this review I will only say that Anchee Min tells her story in a way just as vivid as she did her own story in Red Azalea.
BOTTOM LINE: I ended up writing an essay for a class at Harvard comparing Anchee Min to other great Chinese-American Female Authors: Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston. (I'm not Asian by the way, but I have lived in Asia). But I have to say this is great literature on its own, not simply within the genre of Asian-American Literature or as a work by a female author. It's a great book by an author who has written other great books, and readers should be pleased with themselves to have discovered her a such an early stage in her writing career.
Anchee Min is turning out to be one of my favorite authors, which is shocking because all my other favorite authors are long since dead writers of timeless classics of literature.
Overall, I love stories based on actual historical events and places, that take you to another place, culture, and time. And this book does that very effectively.
Whether you're a lover of great literature, of China, or of history and historical fiction, I'm sure you will love this book.
Anchee Min begins her story well and with a solid punch in introducing the desperate life of Willow and her family. Living a life of extreme poverty in China, Willow and her father follow the missionary, Absalom, and his church because they need the food they can get from him. This hypocritical patronage turns into a fierce loyalty and conversion for Willow's father and also for many of the people from their village. Willow meets, and is befriended by Pearl, Absalom's daughter and the two friends are cynical viewers of Absalom's fanatical mission to 'save souls' and Willow's father's scheming and unethical ways to obtain converts. The logic of how Willow's father goes about convincing people to convert is hilarious and these first few chapters are my favorite in the book.
However, when Anchee Min really gets into the historical aspect of the time - the rise of communism and the ejection of missionaries in China - this book is oddly subdued. The turmoil and violence of the time are barely communicated. It seems that as the girls age the pace of the novel becomes more and more hurried and Min squeezes events of huge magnitude into a few cursory pages. Willow's first marriage, abuse, escape and kidnapping is dealt with in almost a shadowy form where we don't really see her misery or feel for her pain. What could, and probably should, have taken a few chapters is quickly wrapped up and disposed of. The narration seems automatic and unemotional. I had a really had time finishing the rest of the novel simply because I kept thinking of how much better it could have been.
In sum, I think this story had the potential to be absolutely marvellous, but it falls quite a bit short.
In the novel "Pearl of China," Anchee Min, born in China in 1957 and now a resident of the United States, does her best to pay tribute to the life and influence of Pearl S. Buck as someone who successfully depicted the Chinese peasant with affection and veracity. Her main character Willow, a fictitious blending of many of Buck's childhood acquaintances from the village of Chin-kiang, represents the many faces of China during the turmoil of Willow's lifespan encompassing the late 19th and 20th centuries beginning with the Boxer Revolution and ending with the denouncement of Madame Mao and her regime of terrorism and murder. Min's tale speaks with authenticity in a simple yet strong voice that reveals the pragmatic survivor that will do anything to ensure her own continuance without knuckling under to the brutality, humiliation and stripping away of personal dignity in a dangerously paranoid and anti-capitalistic China.
As a daughter of the communist way of life and having no experience or knowledge of the existence of anything else, author Min was chosen by Madame Mao as the ideal proletariat to star in a propaganda film that was never finished. When Madame Mao's regime collapsed with the death of Mao, Min was found guilty by association. Disgraced as a collaborator she was punished with chores of menial labor designed to humiliate her. She knew she faced death and with the help of actress Joan Chen decided that her only option besides suicide was to escape to America. In 1984, she arrived in Chicago, speaking no English, only Chinese. Overwhelmed by the difference in lifestyle and the sting of having been lied to by the communist regime regarding the quality of life in America, she concentrated her efforts, dreaming only of assimilation through the power of language. She wished to speak English like an American. After working in a Chinese restaurant, she realized that all she knew how to say was "Kung Pao Chicken" and "May I take your order?" As this wasn't enough, she set her sights on becoming a secretary so that she could answer the phone like an American.
Her reason for writing initially was to master American grammar. But on another level, she was so tired of all the lies she had to tell to stay alive in China that she desired only to set the record straight. History, as told by the Chinese, in her opinion was incorrect and she did not want to stand by and let their version of history stand--she wanted to tell the story the way she lived it. Writing honestly, she says, is a result of her American renaissance, her American re-education.
And so, in "Pearl of China," Min rights the wrong. Buck was condemned by Mao's regime as an American imperialist even though Buck, nee Sydenstricker, considered herself more Chinese than American. As the child of missionaries, Pearl grew up knowing the real peasants of China; she lived and fought for their rights and those of the subjugated Chinese women for the forty years that she spent as a resident and for the remainder of her life in America as a Noble Prize laureate after she was forced to leave for fear of her life when the communists gained power of the government.
Min's art reflects life. As a student, she had been ordered to renounce Buck; she never questioned if Buck had been condemned for the benefit of the political regime and the brainwashing power it had over the people it controlled. It was only later, upon reading Buck's novel "The Good Earth (Paperback) Pearl S. Buck," did Min realize that Buck possessed a true love of the Chinese peasant and had portrayed these people with love, respect and great humanity. "Pearl of China," is a way for the author to make amends, to portray her homeland in the same manner that Buck did--with persistence and understanding. In particular she wishes to depict its people's willingness to transform in order to continue if not thrive.
Within the novel's 275 pages, as the reader listens to the voice of Willow, they can envision the bond between two children, one a typical Chinese--dark haired and almond-eyed--the other a wavy-haired blonde with blue eyes who wore a crocheted cap to conceal the difference in her coloring to blend in better with her peers. The background story of Pearl's father, the frenetic preacher Absalom, and his desire to ensure his churches growth in the small town and that of Willow's father, the sly Papa Yee, portrays the differences and similarities between the two cultures that clash and then out of necessity come together to survive due to the greater connection as human beings.
As the two women become adults, the usual issues that can end friendships come into play but fail to destroy a relationship that lasts over a lifetime. Willow and Pearl vie to express themselves, each in their individual ways. Both experience disastrous marriages and fall in love with men who they can have but must share with their larger worlds. These two main characters forever share their stage with a secondary cast of colorful local players that rival the distinctive peasant types created by Buck herself. Even when Pearl is forced to leave China and return to America, the friendship persists in the form of letters and warm thoughts.
At this point, Willow's narrative becomes the history of the beleaguered individual in a country where personal freedom did not exist and the threat to one's life could come from a frightened neighbor or a misspoken word. Willow, married to Mao's head of publicity, risks her life to remain true to her memories of Pearl and their friendship and like her creator is publicly denounced, punished and humiliated. It is here that Min's voice is strongest; her depictions of the cruelty inflicted on a populace that would either break or bend to the will of its power-crazed leaders startle the reader with their stark reality. Min doesn't pretty up her prose; she describes with a blunt intensity that makes one weep with sadness at the madness of those who think little of human life and the families that must betray their members just to stay alive. Key is her scene where Nixon visits the village home of Buck with whom he had hoped to travel and is greeted with ceremony reeking of the party line but also with the bravery of a town that although threatened with punishment nevertheless insures that Pearl hears their wishes for her albeit through a messenger.
Bottom line? In "Pearl of China," author Anchee Min shows that determination and craftsmanship allows her access to the title `writer.' Min wants her audience to know China; she wants the reader to become enriched by her story. She wants to remain Chinese--not lose her Chinese voice even though she is now an American. "Pearl of China" successfully depicts a China of great beauty, confusion and upheaval. Nim writes in English although this is not her first language. However, because of this, the prose although screaming with the brutality of the Cultural Revolution and its damage to the soul of the very people it supposedly freed, is at times emotionless in its bluntness. Peasants are depicted with the same authenticity of Pearl S. Buck herself, but again, there is an immature bareness to the tone that perhaps underlines a basic cultural difference. Nim only knew the mental confinement of communism--she lived and breathed it. Now she is like a butterfly, fully grown, emerging from a cocoon she didn't even know existed. She has much to tell--an entire culture to reveal. As the Chinese say about writing, "the wind shows its body through traveling leaves." Nim must learn the nuance--there are soft breezes and hurricanes--the leaves dance, fly, sail, coast and drop to the ground. Nim is determined and as she writes, she will discover the difference. I await her growth. Recommended for those who like Pearl S. Buck and want to see a portrait of China during the Cultural Revolution.
Diana Faillace Von Behren
"Historical fiction"...."historical novels" always leave me in a quandry.
Very often it prompts me to do some research to somehow extract the basis of truth.
Part of me understood the author's fascination with Pearl Buck and her attempt at creating the relationship and later friendship with Willow. Anchee Min took an opportunity to develop characters from her past.
What I found hard to follow, missing in continuity, were very often critical and crucial directions in the main characters' journeys and lives.
While detailed and graphic in some descriptions, relationships and hardships were changed, challenged, endured 'out of nowhere.'
It was as if pieces were missing.
Willow's later years were almost impossible to fathom, in light of her age, and horrendous treatment.
Perhaps, the book would have benefited from a bibliography that could have clarfied more.
Truth be known: The actual title of this fast-paced historical novel should be "Pearl and Willow," not just "Pearl in China." The story is just as much about Willow as it is Pearl. Why is that? Anchee Min, the author, writes from the viewpoint of Pearl's childhood friend, thus can only reveal what Willow knows. While Pearl is in America for over 30 years, Willow can reveal only the details of her own story and whatever she gleans about Pearl from newspapers and the few letters Pearl writes.
Whatever limitations exist in the novel, it remains informative and leaves the reader wanting to know more about this fascinating woman, Pearl Buck. Prior to reading this story, I knew that Pearl Buck grew up in China, was the daughter of missionaries, wrote "The Good Earth," and won the Nobel Prize in Literature. That's it. Now that I know the basics, I want to read more by and about this special writer/woman.
Anchee Min, herself an interesting subject, wrote her own memoir entitled "Red Azalea" about her experiences during the Cultural Revolution, especially under the influence of Madame Mao. These experiences and resulting book greatly suffuse "Pearl in China" with authenticity and abiding anger and utter disregard toward the Chinese co-leader. As a young woman Anchee Min wanted to read "The Good Earth" because it celebrated the Chinese peasant, but Madame Mao wanted nothing of Western influence in her country. In fact, this occurred during the time that Richard Nixon went to China. Initially, Pearl Buck was to accompany him, making it her first time in China in over 30 years. Madame Mao would not allow it and taught school children to hate Ms Buck as a "Western Imperialist."
After the Revolution was over, Min came to the United States. At some point at a book signing of her memoir, a customer gave her a copy of Ms Buck's "The Good Earth." Min was so moved, she decided then to write a historical novel about this American so compassionate toward Chinese peasants.
What I like about historical novels is that the writer can move the story forward without getting bogged down in historical minutiae frequently found in historical works. I also like the extrapolation concerning known facts and guesswork. One such event was the relationship between Pearl and beloved Chinese poet, Hsu Chih-mo, who considered Pearl "the most Chinese person" he had ever met. At the time both were married.
I loved this book, which has inspired me to read more about the Nobel winner. In addition to the suspected affair, other Buck biographical points rendered on paper were:
1. The almost fanatical dedication of her father Absalom to spreading Christianity to the Chinese people
2. Pearl's actual marriage and her husband's almost fanatical dedication to spreading modern (for the time) farming techniques
3. The story of Pearl's mentally challenged daughter
4. Willow's inside story of her marriage with one of the prominent Cultural Revolutionists (a stand-alone story in itself!)
There you have it--a review of a book well worth reading. Highly recommended!
on June 17, 2011
Anchee Min has long been one of my favorite writers. Her first book, Red Azalea, is one that I have recommended many times to many people. In the beginning, I was seduced by her wonderful, lyrical writing. Both Red Azalea and her second book, Katherine, were not only gorgeously written but also full of an unexpected eroticism that seemed to deepen the writing and draw one even tighter into Min's literary web.
Over time, Min has changed her focus somewhat in order to tell China's history and provide us with her unique version of historical fiction to bring forth the lives of famous Chinese such as Madame Mao. Min is undeniably one of the best writers today in bringing Chinese life and history to the Western world. Her books are a pleasure to read not only for the sensitive prose but also for the sense of past times, the way politics and history have intertwined and influenced China as a country over time.
But what of her newest book? What of Pearl of China? Again, Min has taken on an actual person - in this case, the famous writer Pearl Buck - and has written a fictionalized version of her life based in quite a bit of historical fact. The book will not please Buck purists who are looking for a traditional biography. For one familiar with Buck and her life and work, perhaps Pearl of China will serve as a pleasant and fascinating "add on," or something to read after one has read a detailed biography.
Or, it is possible to read Pearl of China knowing nothing at all of Buck. Perhaps in the reading, one will become intrigued with the child of missionaries who grew up in China and later wrote insightful books about the country, winning literary prizes and gaining worldwide attention. Perhaps Min's latest writing will create an upswing of interest in Buck among younger readers. It is also possible to read Pearl of China without any emphasis on Buck at all and view her simply as a background character. After all, the book is more about Willow, Buck's childhood friend in China and her life. One of the most memorable characters in the novel is Papa, Willow's father who both comically and touchingly manages to walk a tightrope between Buddhism and Christianity and between con man and church man in order to survive through decades of difficult times in China.
Fans of Anchee Min will read this book, but it probably will not be anyone's favorite book by Min. In fact, Pearl of China feels very much like a Min running out of steam. Her writing - always very good - seems less lyrical, more narrative. One misses the poetic quality of her earlier novels. Also missing is the amazing eroticism that Min used to be able to render in almost every novel. Perhaps the idea of combining Pearl Buck with an erotic factor did not seem wise or even imaginable. But the romance that Min dreamed up for Buck did not seem to work either. Perhaps, in the end, Buck was too difficult and too real a person to fictionalize.
Min touches on the Boxer Rebellion and, as always, the Cultural Revloution in China. She manages - as usual - to fill her readers with the horrors of those times. She has done this so well, so many times over now, that one begins to wish for Min to ease up a bit on the political and allow herself to go back to the dream-like early writings with the pages that read as poetry and the building eroticism lurking behind the flowered words. At this point in her life, Min is, perhaps, too serious. Her own writing self seems to be too wired to past political traumas in China. Perhaps this is the time for her to try a different kind of novel. Pearl of China is not it. I, for one, am waiting for the poetry to come back.
on April 29, 2011
Willow Yee lived in Chin-kiang, a small town far away from the city of Peking, on the south side of the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province. She lived there with her father and grandmother, Nai Nai. Her mother had died after her father rented her out to pay his debts and she became pregnant. He had given her "magic root powder" from the local herbalist. It was meant to expel the fetus but also killed her!
Willow was seven-years-old in 1897 and she was terribly afraid she was going to lose her Nai Nai like she lost her mother. Grandma was receiving men in the back of the bungalow they lived in. While Nai Nai was busy entertaining her men, Willow and her father worked as seasonal farm hands, he planting rice, wheat and cotton and Willow planting soybeans. In the off season her father stole and Willow, now 8-years-old, was herself a seasoned thief. Hunger does terrible things to people.
One day they met a missionary named Absalom Sydenstricker who walked the streets holding a Bible and proclaiming God was people's best friend. He held his church services in an old store. Willow's father befriended him for the sole purpose of stealing from him. Absalom's wife, Carie, was beside herself and in tears when he even stole the churches doormat. After stealing his wallet, Willow hurried down a side street and out of town. She felt as though someone was watching and following her so she took off running as fast as she could toward the hills, after a couple of miles she stopped and sat down. As Willow began to open the wallet she heard a noise and knew someone was approaching her. Suddenly she heard: "...you stole my father's wallet"! It turned out to be Absalom and Carie's daughter, Pearl. Pearl would eventually become known as none other than Pearl S. Buck!
I have read all of Pearl's books but had never really read too much about her personal life. I assumed she was a happy, contented, well-educated woman and author all her life, but I was terribly mistaken. What I learned in this book about Pearl's "personal" life was truly sad and literally devastating. The book is rich in history, wars and revolutions, love of family and the importance of friendship. The friendship between Willow and Pearl is all consuming and will touch the very deepest parts of your heart. The scene near the end of the novel at the grave will have you weeping from the beautiful one woman service.
This was an extremely well-written novel. I was so taken in that I kept turning the pages faster and faster. It was one of those books you didn't want to put down. If you haven't read any of Pearl S. Buck's books, I highly recommend "The Good Earth", along with this one, of course.
So says Pearl Buck in this fictionalized biography of the Nobel-winning author's career-shaping experiences in China, commenting on the sharp and violent political schisms that divided the country in the first half of the 20th century. Buck, who grew up thinking of herself as Chinese, ended up being forced out of one of her 'home' countries, as were so many other non-Chinese in the years that culminated in the Communist victory of 1949. This is the story of Pearl's relationship with China, told through the eyes of a Chinese novelist who was once forced to denounce the novelist and her works at the height of the Cultural Revolution.
The first half to-two thirds of this book, which is essentially the story of a friendship between Pearl and the fictional character of Willow Yee, a young beggar whose father ends up as the disciple of Pearl's missionary father, is excellent and even riveting in parts, giving the reader glimpses of life in China in the earliest years of the 20th century, from the Boxer rebellion and the violent attacks on foreign missionaries to the years in which warlords vied with each other for power. The growing ties between Willow and her family and Pearl and her parents transform the lives of Willow and her father, in particular; Willow becomes a witness to the experiences that Pearl would later transform into novels like The Good Earth. When they are parted, Willow faces life-altering challenges to her early loyalty to Pearl and to their friendship.
As long as Pearl and Willow are interacting, the story held me in its grip. But as they are pulled apart, the narrative began to feel more perfunctory, fragmented and choppy, almost like a series of vignettes featuring Willow (who narrates the whole book, an excellent way to tell the story.) At times, the narrative is downright rushed, compressing the decades between Mao's Great March and the 1950s into some 20 pages. It's as if when Pearl isn't part of the story, Willow's own story falters, which was disappointing. A lot of the time, I'll read books that feel padded or overwritten; this is one of those rare occasions when I thought more detail and a bigger, broader story would have swept me up more in Willow's own experiences. There were moments that were fabulous, like snapshots of Mme Mao in the caves of Yenan; they worked beautifully as satire and moved the story and themes forward. But I kept wondering "what else?" It felt perfunctory, and became increasingly so right up to what should have been the climax of the novel. The worst consequence, for me as a reader, is that some of the characters and relationships that emerge in the second half of the novel -- such as Willow's husband and daughter -- never felt as real or vivid as those she introduces in the first half, who were so alive that I could almost conjure up a mental image.
My biggest gripe about this book is something that struck me even more forcefully reading her last book, The Last Empress: A Novel, which I reviewed earlier. While this novel is ostensibly narrated by Willow, Min is almost a shadow narrator, and an omniscient one; there are too many interjections along the lines of "What Pearl did not know was that xxxx..." or "I didn't yet know that...". That works in a non-fiction history; perhaps in a memoir, but not in a novel. I didn't want to be told by the author when Pearl and Willow part for the last time; that spoiled what could have been a great suspenseful moment for me later in the book. At times, I felt as if I was reading a lively history book, with some dialog thrown in for good measure, the way that history documentaries are fleshed out with re-enactments of critical scenes.
To me, the first half of the book was dramatic, even startlingly good in parts, showing that it could have been even more compelling a portrait of China in the first decades of the 20th century, told through the eyes of someone with an obvious understanding of those changes as well as the ability to stand back and think about their meaning. So when it fell flat, and I found myself plodding through Willow's various trials later in the book, flicking ahead to see how many pages were left and not really experiencing the events with her (as I think a reader should with a first-person narrator 200-plus pages into a book), I was disappointed. It lacked the emotional power need to transform a good book into a 'thumping good read' in that second half; hence it's only a 3.5-star book for me. I've rounded up, true, but it doesn't measure up to a lot of other novels I've rated 4 stars in the past because it just didn't rivet my attention as much.
I do hope this novel causes more readers to seek out and discover some of Buck's own novels, not just the Good Earth. Some of my personal favorites, which I started reading decades ago and still re-read, include Kinfolk (Oriental Novels of Pearl S. Buck),Pavilion of Women (which has its own wonderful portrait of friendship between a Chinese women and two utterly incompatible characters, a Western missionary and a very different kind of Chinese woman) and Three Daughters of Madame Liang (Buck, Pearl S. Oriental Novels of Pearl S. Buck, 4th,). No, Buck didn't deserve to stand alongside literary greats like Thomas Mann in receiving the Nobel Prize, and some of her short stories, in particular, are romanticized pablum. But that doesn't mean that she and her novels should be ignored. In fact, I'd argue that her own novel of Tzu Hsi, Imperial Woman (Buck, Pearl S. Oriental Novels of Pearl S. Buck, 3rd,), is a far better read than Min's more stilted two-volume biography of the last empress of China. Whether you end up enjoying this book more than I did or not, I'd definitely recommend seeking out those four Buck novels.
Edited to add: I have just caught up on a book that was published a year or so ago, The Calligrapher's Daughter: A Novel. Set in Korea during a similar time frame, I found it far more appealing as a novel, both in terms of the characters and the writing style. There are some similarities in plot -- there are Christian missionaries in both, along with Japanese invaders and hardships -- but I found Kim's book more polished and intriguing. So an additional shout-out to that as an alternative or in addition to Min's book.
Anchee Min's latest novel, Pearl of China, is a fictionalized account of the life of Pearl Buck, as seen through the eyes of a childhood confidant who maintains a life long relationship with the author. The story itself is engrossing, especially for those who are fans of Ms. Buck's work, however, I was very disappointed the quality of Ms. Min's writing. Min's style is very basic and amateurish, wholly lacking in sophistication and polish. At first, I attributed this to the fact that the story is initially told by a child and assumed that the author was attempting to recreate a child's voice. However, as the story progressed and the character Willow grew into a mature and educated woman, the quality of the writing failed to grow with her, and remained simplistic and drab. It is a shame, because I believe the story itself is highly original and has the potential to be absolutely riveting if handled differently. The bland treatment Min gives the story weighs it down and detracts from it.
With that said, the story itself is a very nice blend of fact and fiction. Pearl Buck is given a fictional best friend, and the two endure childhood during the Boxer Rebellion, bad marriages, long separations, and Mao's Cultural Revolution while remaining emotionally, if not always physically, close. Real historical figures, including Pearl's missionary parents, the famous Chinese poet Hsu Chih-mo, Chairman Mao, and even Richard Nixon, interact with Pearl and Min's imagined family of beggars-turned-evangelists.
Min is very respectful of Pearl Buck and treats her subject with the utmost respect and care. The author admits in her forward, that Pearl of China is her way of making amends for a past wrong. As a teenaged member of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, Min was ordered to write condemnations of Buck's books without being allowed to actually read them. After immigrating to America, Min became familiar with Buck's work, and saw that Buck truly was a friend to and champion of the Chinese people - the complete opposite of everything Madame Mao had charged. She conceived of the idea for the novel after reading Buck's The Good Earth, and Pearl of China is definitely an homage - an apology - to Pearl Buck. When viewed from this perspective, Pearl of China is a fascinating and very personal story. For myself, after reading all of Pearl Buck's books and Peter Conn's biography of the Nobel Prize winner, Min's book is a nice addition to cap off Buck's legacy.
on July 21, 2011
The novel was beautiful. I'm a recent fan of Anchee Min's, she writes beautifully and from the depths of her soul.
However, in this book I think artistic license was taken too far. The book is marvelously written, and I know there are disclaimers regarding the characters being based on friends, and not really Pearl's friends, but the difficulty I have with the book is that it follows Pearl's actual life incredibly loosely, even going so far as to assert that Pearl did indeed have a relationship with the poet Hsu Chi-Mo, which has never been proven and is actually very unlikely.
My advice is to read this book and enjoy it for all you're worth, but take everything with a grain of salt in regards to the Historical content. It's very, very loose.