I went to the bimonthly (meaning every other, not 2x per) book club meeting at my local library tonight, having completed the assigned read, The Good Earth, Pearl Buck's classic novel. I read this one three weeks ago, when I was interviewing for a job at her home (I didn't get it, though I made it to the top two, so I guess I can tell y'all where the interview was now). It was a happy coincidence that the interview and the book club selection coincided.
The room was filled, as always, with women over 50. I always feel really out of place at these book clubs. I continue to go because it's virtually the only thing to do around here and because the librarians are so earnest and sincere about their book club that I can't help but want to support it. It's been hit-and-miss. There are times when I've gone and it's been great, and times when I've gone and it just pissed me off (like when they all hated Life of Pi -- too much fish-killing, they said. WTF?) Tonight was one of the good ones.
I did enjoy this book. It wasn't quite what I expected, but I liked how Buck kept us off balance. In the early parts of the book, you're rooting hard for Wang Lung and O-lan to make it. You're pleased when they succeed. Yet, slowly, you turn against Wang Lung. He seems to get selfish and arrogant, and he does some things that are a little creepy. Getting his aunt and uncle hooked on opium. Taking Lotus as a second wife, and basically forgetting O-lan, then forgetting Lotus too, and keeping her locked up in that court while she gets fat and old.
O-lan is harder to get a fix on. People tonight posited that she had just been so abused that her emotions shut down, or never even had a chance to develop, or that she was brainwashed by society. There's that hard practicality there, and not much else in some ways. Still, she got a horribly raw deal, and the part where Wang Lung takes her pearls to give to his second wife is just heartbreaking. We talked about this extensively tonight, since our group was all-female. I thought it was interesting that none of us (including myself) were sympathetic to Lotus, the second wife, although she too was sold into slavery (prostitution) at a young age, and probably abused as well.
Buck has a weird style in this book. I haven't read anything else by her, although I might now, so I don't know if it's always how she writes. But to me, it almost sounds a bit like the Bible. Each sentence sounds like a pronouncement. At this moment, I'm bitterly regretting returning my copy so I can't quote anything. But those who've read this book know what I'm talking about. It had the interesting effect of making the story seem as though it had implications far beyond the tale of Wang Lung, and that you, the reader, were supposed to go off and think about what each sentence means.
I'm a little surprised that this book is read widely in junior high and high schools. I'm curious to know how it's taught, and what kids think of it. Are there any teachers, or students, out there who can answer this for me?