ISBN 0394534328 - Reading the About the Author page before I began reading the book left me wary of what I might find on the pages. Building a career on writing books about the culture you're descended from, but have never really lived in, seems unlikely to result in ethnically-accurate stories. I can't say whether or not Lord hit her mark but I did, periodically, feel like I could have been reading a book set in almost any place, so I don't feel that she really drew the reader into China.
Steel Hope is the illegitimate son of Stone Guardian and his lover, Amber Willows. The woman he will know as his mother, Jade, is an odd mixture of an unattractive woman and a vain one, and is glad to claim Steel Hope as her own. Now she has given a son to the House of Li and still managed to maintain her figure. She even "allows" Amber Willows to serve as the child's wet nurse, bringing her crippled brother, Mountain Pine, too. In time, Mountain Pine will become Steel Hope's bookmate and best friend, neither boy aware of their blood relationship. The boys meet and befriend another young man, Firecrackers, and the three become inseparable - especially after it comes to light that Firecrackers is actually a girl and the daughter of the gravekeeper. They pledge an oath to always remain "brothers" and, despite the intervention of years and events, they do so.
They are rarely together over the years; at most times two of them are together but the third is not with them. For years after the gravekeeper's death, it is Mountain Pine and Steel Hope who are together, as they further their educations. Firecrackers, in the meantime, has made a new friend of a woman named Mushroom. Mushroom has introduced Firecrackers to the theater where she, as Summer Wishes, begins a career that will bring her back to her brothers. The boys find themselves in the audience as the stunning Summer Wishes takes the stage, then in the same bomb shelter with the dazzling actress... but, although both boys are taken with her, neither recognizes her until she tells them who she is. The trio of brothers is now, and for the remainder of the book, a strange sort of love triangle, wherein "doing the right thing" tends to outweigh love and the boisterous, headstrong young girl that was Firecrackers becomes a weak woman. The books spans the remainder of the their lives and the decades of upheaval in China.
I was bothered by some things - Firecrackers was a young girl who, posing as a boy, was presented as strong and capable and made of sterner stuff than Steel Hope, son of a wealthy family, and Mountain Pine, the cripple. Yet, as an adult, she seems to let everything outside of herself determine her fate in every way, from who she will marry and when she will marry him to the roles she will play. It's disconcerting that she is, rather abruptly to me, broken so easily. There is also the fact that Lord chooses not to name World War II or the Communist revolution or any other event that would help the reader differentiate between times. This gives the impression, for those not familiar with China's history, that she is writing about one very long, drawn out, even endless war, that lasts the length of Steel Hope's life. There seems to be little time during which the three friends' lives are not all about surviving the war just to die of old age - a strange, somewhat surreal effect that makes them seem even more tragic. Worse, since Chinese history isn't a big subject in American schools, there will be readers who remain lost most of the time and only recognize Mao and Tiananmen Square
Lastly, every now and then, Lord writes in a vague way that's hard to explain. It is as if she expects that the reader should be able to follow this sort of odd, rambling, meandering, random train of thought process, so she put it down on paper - and I couldn't follow it. Thankfully, it wasn't frequent, but it was annoying, especially the times when the story was somewhat suspenseful. To suddenly have to try to decipher these ramblings was frustrating. All in all, though, a good book and an interesting story that could have benefited from a little less of that and a little more historically relevant info to put the reader in the right timeframe. I'd read more from Lord, but I wouldn't go out of my way to find it.