Because of their immense class divide, Yunxian and Meiling face formidable challenges. However, the dynamic isn’t given sufficient space to flourish on the page before coming to an abrupt standstill when Yunxian marries into the prosperous Yang family. Even after Yunxian and Meiling reunite, we are meant to take their mutual affection for granted—a leap that becomes increasingly difficult thanks to Meiling’s own ambition and keen awareness of her less privileged background ... Interesting facts fill the book, but make for stilted reading ... See’s constant expounding on the medical knowledge and social attitudes of the period results in the absence of any emotional connection with Yunxian, who shows little interiority beyond what she is feeling at the moment, whether it’s sad, lonely or helpless ... Scenes from her life tend to lack the intimacy a first-person, present-tense story should evoke. The effect is reminiscent of a historical re-enactment. The costumes may be sumptuous, the setting and props exude authenticity, but we aren’t transported; we are still on the outside looking in. Perhaps See’s book is meant to be equal parts educational and entertaining, though rarely does it feel immersive ... See succeeds when she delves into an issue that was as relevant in Yunxian’s time as it is today: the urgency for those in the medical profession to listen to women and address their concerns ... See makes clear the ameliorating effects of friendship and love. She shows how with the right people we can surpass our own expectations and that the hardships of life are often easier to endure if we don’t have to survive them alone.
See creates a cultural smorgasbord as she adeptly depicts the strict delineation and separation of the sexes and the minute details of the social hierarchy, especially among the women, from wives to concubines, widows, daughters, and servants. Based on the writings of an historical Ming dynasty female physician, See’s accomplished novel immerses readers in a fascinating life lived within a fascinating culture.
Lisa See’s spellbinding historical novel...vividly depicts 15th-century China with artfully woven details, rich characters and descriptive language. See captures a world of propriety and cruelty as she ruminates on the disparity between the lives of men and women, and how women—no matter their class—are treated as possessions of the men around them. But through her strong-willed characters, See also emphasizes how women can act as the anchors of society ... Poetic maxims about life are smoothly incorporated into the narrative, imbuing Lady Tan’s Circle of Women with an element of mysticism, while references to medicinal formulas and theories reflect the cultural beliefs of 15th-century China, many of which are still practiced today. For fans of historical fiction, this is an emotional and illuminating epic.