White Gardenia

by Belinda Alexandra

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

However difficult your life may be, White Gardenia is likely to convince you that other people have had it rougher. The novel's well-researched historical setting was inspired by the life of the author's mother, who migrated from China to Australia during the upheavals of the World War II era.

Anya, the fictional main character, was born and raised in China, the daughter of upper-class Russians who fled during the Revolution. In 1945 when the story opens, she is almost thirteen and her father has recently died. The old-guard Chinese mistrust Anya and her mother, assuming, ironically, that they must be Communists because of their Russian background; the Chinese Communists think they are traitors because a Japanese official requisitioned their house and moved in with them during the war.

Anya and her mother are separated when her mother is deported and Anya is sent to safety in Shanghai. But Anya's troubles have only begun. Taken into the home of a wealthy nightclub owner, the unworldly young woman soon falls in love with a handsome man she does not know as well as she imagines she does. When the sophisticated, still unfamiliar world around her erupts into violence, she must run for her life. In the primitive conditions of a refugee camp, menanced by typhoons and hostile neighbors, she struggles to survive and mend her broken heart.

White Gardenia is a roller-coaster-ride of a story that delivers a heartwarming ending. Written in a popular style, it focuses on plot rather than on psychologically complex characters; readers will quickly identify both the good guys and the bad guys. The title comes from a recurring metaphor: the white gardenia so fragile it browns and withers with the slightest rough handling - but though Anya may be a lovely young woman, she's no hothouse flower. Readers who enjoy a story that wears its heart on its sleeve will be cheering her on through the many perils she must cope with. (2002; 483 pages, including an Author's Note separating fact from fiction)

More about White Gardenia at Powell's Books or Amazon.com

Other novels about Russians in wartime:

The Little Russian by Susan Sherman (2012), about a Jewish woman from the Ukraine and her struggle to survive during and after the Russian Revolution. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons (2000), a love story set in World War II Leningrad; #1 in the Tatiana and Alexander series. More info

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957), written by an author who lived through the Revolution; Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature the year after its publication. More info

Nonfiction about Shanghai during the WWII era:

Secret War in Shanghai: Treachery, Subversion and Collaboration in the Second World War by Bernard Wasserstein (1999), about foreign communities in WWII Shanghai and the city's corrupt underworld. More info

Shanghai: The Rise and Fall of a Decadent City, 1842-1949 by Stella Dong (2000). More info

Shanghai Splendor: A Cultural History, 1843-1949 by Wen-Hsin Yeh (2008). More info


A Short History of Shanghai at the New York Times

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