I am not a big reader and most of the books that I am currently reading are next to the toilet in my ensuite. At the moment, next to my throne is a Fredrick Forsyth paperback, a half read sermon by Richard Dawkins and half a dozen copies of That's Shanghai that serves as a reference library whenever my wife asks me what we are doing for dinner.
The depicted red paperback however is with me at all times. It is rare that I get long stretches time to read so I read on the Metro or walking home because I literally cannot put it down. This is not my first experience with Tony Parsons. A couple of years back I read One For My Baby which I barely recall. What I did recall was that it was that I did actually finish reading it. For someone with an attention span as short as mine, it means that it was good enough to keep me interested for the duration of the book.
I picked up My Favourite Wife at Changi Airport on the way home after a two week business trip and I was at that stage eager to get home to see my wife and kids. I troll through the usual suspense and spy novels that I usually read but I settled on this one for two reasons. The first reason was that it had something to do with China and was written by someone whom I already knew and secondly it was just a little more expensive than the usual paperbacks. I figured there must be a reason this book cost SGD3.00 more than the other books.
When I opened the book and started reading, I was hooked. It described the first impressions of Shanghai and I could immediately relate. Ten years ago I arrived in Shanghai with one suitcase, was picked up by a limo and taken to the Grand Hyatt and the impressions of what I saw almost matched exactly Tony's words. The Flash-Gordonesque skyline of Pudong juxtaposed against the colonial architecture of the western bank of the Huangpu River equally left me in a confused and awestricken state that the protagonist Bill Holden must have felt.
My impressions of many of the descriptions of Shanghai also caused me to flash back to my first impressions of well know places in Shanghai. His reference to M on the Bund, the now quiet Maoming Lu and the reference to fictional bars BB's and Suzy Too that made me immediately think of Malones and Judy's Too. Even down to the apartment complex Paradise Mansion where Bill lived which reminds me of Ambassy Court (to be honest it could be one of many apartment complexes that are actually in Gubei but Ambassy Court was the first one that came to mind first) to the International Family Hospital on Xianxia Lu (actually called United Family Hospital in reality) I get the feeling that the book was written from experience rather than just observation. The descriptions actually feel like it was written by someone who had been shadowing me for the last ten years and decided to dramatise my own experiences.
The story itself explores something that I can imagine would have weighed on the mind of many an expat that may have spent time away from their family. Through stories told to me by other expatriate friends and from my own observations, the angst that is experienced by Bill having his wife and child back at home while he was carving out his future in the wild wild East was written in such as way that allows you to see Shanghai in the light of someone who actually acted on his temptations and impulses.
The book also provides an accurate depiction of other parts of China including Shenzhen and Guilin that I had also visited in the past so overall as a great story about the expatriate experience but also an insight into the perception of China and Shanghai from a local perspective. One of the memorable parts was from another character in the book Nancy Deng, a local Chinese lawyer working in Bill's firm over dinner on the streets of Shenzhen where she says two things that I find very insightful about China:
"In China the important men hate everyone's corruption but their own."
and referring to herself;
"I have no big dreams... I know I am unimportant. But I think perhaps my country's future is yet to be decided. It doesn't matter what anyone says. Nothing is inevitable in China."
So for anyone who is a foreigner living in China, or Chinese who have experienced the rest of the world, Tony Parsons' My Favourite Wife is recommended reading. A recommendation from someone who usually has a hard time finishing a book.
Another review I found about the book can be found here and provides a bit more about the plot.