Although my mother was totally unlike this author’s, I found this memoir irresistible. Burns’s mother, Dotty, was a stunningly beautiful, buxom redhead who dressed to the nines with glittery baubles, went out on the town several nights a week, and made sure everyone in the family revolved around her own wishes. As her only child, the author grew up loving her mother and trying constantly to please her, shocked again and again by her Sicilian father’s kidnapping, her mother’s secret affair, and revelations of hidden identity. No novelist could make this up!
What made the book worthwhile, though, is how this daughter grew out of her mother’s shadow and into her own identity and learned, later in life, how to make emotional sense of her unusual childhood. She finds a much healthier balance of motherhood and fulfilling work and later seeks out inspiration in women who managed to skirt the rules and reinvent their lives. That took persistence and strength of character I admire.
As a diversion from the current ills of the world, I highly recommend reading Remembering Shanghai: A Memoir of Socialites, Scholars and Scoundrels, by the mother-daughter combo of Isabel Sun Chao and Claire Chao, published in 2018.
Reading this book during this time of panic and pandemic gave me a wonderful break. Each night after an overload of dreadful news, it was a relief to let this book sweep me away on a journey into an idyllic past—that of Isabel Sun Chao’s childhood in 1930s Shanghai.
As the daughter of a wealthy, privileged Chinese family, Isabel grew up in a legendary era of dance clubs, movie stars, priceless artwork, and elegant qipao dresses—leavened with salacious tales of underworld bosses, scheming sons, and multiple mistresses. The Japanese occupation and subsequent bloody civil war barely affected Isabel. But in 1949, the Communist takeover prompted her father to send her off to the safety of Hong Kong, unaware she would never return to her pampered life in Shanghai.
Aside from its deliberately upbeat tone (for the most part), this book also stands out for the remarkable cooperative effort of mother and daughter as co-creators. Isabel’s daughter, Princeton-educated Claire Chao, worked with her mother to tell this first-person story and also added her own perspective to fill in historical context. Adding to its delight, the book is lavishly illustrated with lovely portraits, historical scenes, and whimsical drawings that bring the past to life.