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I think I must have the plots of two large historical novels about China mixed up in my head. The book I am trying to recall, that I read many years ago, started out with a young man in the UK (Scotland or England). On the voyage to China, he met a young nun, who helped him learn to speak Chinese. Their work was very different and took them to different regions of the country, however they remained friends and their lives intersected repeatedly, throughout the course of the book.
I was convinced that the book was "Tai-Pan" by James Clavell, but recently picked up a copy, thumbed through it, and it doesn't seem to start out that way at all. I believe I have it confused with another book and it's driving me CRAZY! Does anyone else recall this book???
I'm looking forward to hearing any suggestions!
I finally found it, by paging through pages and pages of historical fiction at Amazon.com. The book was "Fragrant Harbor" by John Lanchester. Thanks for your suggestions and happy reading!