I hope I’m not alone in this. Women mostly don’t talk about it. I know I haven’t. But I believe that if you’ve had a miscarriage, or had trouble getting pregnant, or if you’ve given birth to a special needs child, then inevitably we all ask the same question. It’s the one we’re never supposed to ask, and yet it still creeps in. Even if it’s a whisper. Even if it’s only ever asked in our thoughts…What did I do wrong? What didn’t I do? Was it that trip on the stairs? That glass of wine I had before I knew I was pregnant? Am I, somehow, not woman enough to get pregnant? Am I broken in some way? What is wrong with me?
How is this my fault?
While Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is certainly not written to encourage such women or to answer these questions in any sort of productive way, I found myself comforted inside the pages. Ming Dynasty opinions about the ways in which women and women alone are responsible for not only getting pregnant and giving birth to a healthy baby, but also ensuring that baby is a boy, casts a stark light on the questions above. Under the lens of See’s story, the questions dissolve into the ether to which they belong. Seeking blame is such folly. Finding fault is only a distraction from the real emotions we don’t want to feel. The grief we think is not ours to claim.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s relationships, female ones specifically, that are the fuel of this story. The way friendships light between children, the winds of life that threaten to blow them out, the embers that cast such beautiful colors over bonds that last many years. It seems several times in the book the main relationship has breathed its last, and yet every time some tiny spark, some loving choice, rekindles the friendship so that it burns deeper than before.
If you have a circle of women who love you and whom you love, then this story will be a tenderly familiar one. If you, like me, have struggled with the female relationships in your life, this story could encourage you to examine them anew. It might even convince you that you need one. Maybe… You should also read this book if you’re at all interested in the history of China and the Ming Dynasty, and you’d rather read a story than actually have to do the work. (I LOVE historical fiction for this.) And read the book for my favorite quote: “I’ve been lucky to have been cared for and loved since childhood by a circle of women. Now it’s time for me to create a wider circle, so I can do for my daughters and other women (what these women) have done for me.”
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