Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Here’s what a fairly recent (pubbed September 2013) bestseller looks like. It hasn’t gotten any major nominations or awards (perhaps I should add ‘yet,’ as author Jamie Ford‘s debut, Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, garnered a few nods); nevertheless, it’s certainly sold plenty of copies in the few months since it hit shelves.
In 1934, 12-year-old William Eng is the “only Chinese boy left” at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage. Although he has only vague memories of his mother, he remembers enough to recognize her on the silver screen during a rare outing to the theater. With the help of his closest friend – a motherless blind girl named Charlotte – William goes in search of the Chinese American movie star, Willow Frost, who was once Liu Song, his beloved ah-ma. A double narrative unfolds, weaving William’s maternal quest, with Liu Song’s difficult experiences during the Depression and her eventual transformation into Willow Frost. What William eventually learns about his mother, his own past, and their short time together, prove difficult truths to face.
Although the writing is smooth enough to keep you reading, the story tends toward melodramatic and predictable. Based on the success of Hotel, however, to assume Songs will find similar support is not unreasonable. Yet what makes this novel stand out is not particularly its literary merit, but for its relentless victimization of women. Yes, historically, women suffered purely because of gender, and for minority women, the challenges were exponentially greater – but the women in Songs never rise above their victimization.[Possible spoiler alert!] The two women closest to William are both victims of incest. Willow is raped by her stepfather, and eventually succumbs to his lurid whims to feed their child. Even when she falls in love, she is little more than a helpless vessel for empty promises. In contrast, William’s young friend Charlotte refuses to continue a life controlled by fear and abuse and commits suicide to escape.
None of the minor female characters fare better: Willow’s mother is a sacrificial shadow whose desperate submission to her evil second husband leaves her young daughter at his mercy; that cruel stepfather’s first wife abuses as she has been abused, manipulated, abandoned; the young woman chosen to marry Willow’s would-be lover never rises above heir-bearer and household manager.
Each of Song‘s women remain trapped in generalizations, stereotypes, and male fantasies. Regardless of the possibility of a better ending, after 350 pages (or almost 13 hours stuck in the ears – Ryan Gesell is more assured as young William but gratingly over-emotes as Willow), disappointment and regret are really all that remain.