BRINGING A CITY TO LIFE: Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones

Shanghai

Night in Shanghai
by Nicole Mones
Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt, 2014.
275 pages, $32.00

 

In her new novel Night in Shanghai, Nicole Mones depicts the Japanese invasion of China in the 30’s and 40’s with a skillful, vibrant touch. Her mastery of language and knowledge of historical events make the pages come alive with the rich tastes and fragrances of the all-embracing port city.

Mones does a fantastic job of unfolding the threat of war in the lively city of Shanghai. She weaves the lives of Chinese gangsters, communists, jazz musicians, and exiled foreigners to create a well-rounded view of Shanghai during these tumultuous times. We embrace this atmosphere during an after-dinner jam session, when people of different races and cultures “pulsed together… any sense of separate nationhood had dropped away. This was Shanghai, itself an eclectic improvisation, a loop like this twelve-bar blues, playing again and again, bringing all possibilities to life.”

Unfortunately, the book falls short due to Mones’ weak characterization. She introduces star-crossed lovers –Thomas and Song– and somehow forgets them along the way. Their passion does not resonate with me. When the classically-trained American pianist finally learns to improvise with passionate abandon during their first romantic encounter, it feels clichéd and better-suited for a Nicholas Sparks story. In the last half of the book, the focus on Thomas and Song shifts to a hodgepodge of secondary characters, almost as an afterthought. If the author had focused on developing the main characters, on top of creating such a vivid setting, this novel would have been a real gem.

*I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.*

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