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The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harrison
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The Binding Chair (original 2000; edition 2000)

by Kathryn Harrison

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4691422,081 (3.48)14
Member:gaskella
Title:The Binding Chair
Authors:Kathryn Harrison
Info:Fourth Estate (2000), Paperback, 336 pages
Collections:Your library, To read
Rating:
Tags:Fiction, Asia China, TBR

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The Binding Chair or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society by Kathryn Harrison (2000)

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English (12)  Dutch (1)  All languages (13)
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
There are three stories in this book - that of May, a former prostitute with bound feet who married an Australian expat in Shanghai, her niece Alice and Suzanne Petroska. I found May's story to be exceptionally compelling and really enjoyed reading about her life. However, as other have mentioned, when the story strayed to her niece or Suzanne, it lost some its magic. I think the author was trying to make us understand May and Alice's relationship by showing it from both sides, but in the end both came off an unsympathetic. ( )
  elleceetee | Apr 8, 2013 |
The hook was the title - perhaps a glimpse into the secret world of Chinese culture in times not too long gone by. The protagonist with her tiny feet and huge greed was quite a fascinating character, but when the focus changed to her extremely boring niece going to school it seemed the author had run out of steam and the book died for me. I tried several times to get back into it, but in the end, despite the pretty cover looking at me from the bedside table, gave it up. ( )
  Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
Essentially, this is the story of Mae who is married to a silk merchant and is his fourth wife, she flees him to a life in a Shanghai brothel, which is preferable to her married life. In 1899 she meets and marries an Australian called Arthur. The time line does flit from past to present, which I found in part irritating,but nonetheless,I continued to read.The ending is both dramatic and unexpected. ( )
  AnglersRest | Dec 8, 2012 |
May is a Chinese woman of the late 19th century, whose feet were bound to make her more attractive to a husband. But May escapes her fate and becomes instead a high-price prostitute in shnaghai.
I enjoyed the compelling, complex characters in this novel. The setting is vivid, the imagery is great; there is some humour which relieves the sometimes gloomy subject matter. The pain of bound feet reflects the inner pain of the heroine. Recommended to lovers of quality historical fiction. ( )
  Sheiladalton | Sep 3, 2011 |
My review from May 29, 2003:

An Amy Tan story without Amy Tan charisma!

I love reading novels about Asian culture and I have read all of Amy Tan's books as well as such masterpieces as "Memoirs of a Geisha". This book,while seemingly well-written and promising at its onset, left me flat (and slightly confused and depressed) at the end. I found that while the general ideas of family relationships and Chinese cultures explored in this tale were somewhat akin to those topics explored by Amy Tan (one of my favorite authors), the characterization and story line lacked Amy Tan's depth.
May was the protagonist whose life seemed to begin with the cruel yet traditional binding of her feet when she was 5-years-old in China. If anything, Ms. Harrison brings to light the cruelty of this practice as well as Western ignorance of Asian culture. The foot binding was the only time I really felt sympathy toward May. ...And I didn't find Alice or any of the other characters terribly likable either.

If you are craving literature dealing with Eastern Culture of the past and present, better to stick with books like "The Bonesetter's Daughter", "The Kitchen God's Wife", or "Memoirs of a Geisha". ( )
  KindleKapers | Apr 22, 2011 |
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You'll always arrive at this same city.
Don't hope for somewhere else;
no ship for you exists,
no road exists.
--From "The City" by Constantine Cavafy, 1894
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For Jill
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The gatepost, stuccoed pink to match the villa, bore a glazed tile painted with a blue number, the same as that in the advertisement.
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Book description
Beautiful, charismatic, destructive, May escapes an arranged marriage in rural nineteenth-century China for life in a Shanghai brothel, where she meets Arthur, an Australian whose philanthropic pursuits lead him into one scrape after another. As a member of the Foot Emancipation Society, Arthur calls on May not for his pleasure but for her rehabilitation, only to find himself immediately and helplessly seduced by the sight of her bound feet. Reforming May is out of the question, so love-struck Arthur marries her instead and brings her home to live with him, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two girls, Alice and Cecily. In Alice, May sees the possibility of redemption: a surrogate for a child she has lost. And it is to May that Alice turns for the love her own mother withholds. But when the twelve-year-old is caught preparing her aunt's opium pipe, she is shipped off to a London boarding school, far from the dangerous influence of the woman who will come to reclaim her and to control the whole family. The Binding Chair unfolds among senses of astonishing beauty and cruelty, in a lawless place where traditions and cultures clash, and where tragedy threatens a world built on the banks of unsettled waters-from bustling Whangpoo River to the lake of Blood in the Chinese afterworld.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0060934425, Paperback)

One of the women in Kathryn Harrison's The Binding Chair has a mind "which had always suffered from morbid imaginings." Harrison could be telling a gentle joke on herself here, for she has stuffed her novel with such imaginings. Here are broken fingers, abortions, Marathon Man-style dentistry, sodomy (not in a good way), and even an abused chicken. One particular morbidity, though, is the spur of the tale.

May, a young Chinese woman, suffers the brutal ritual of foot binding at the turn of the last century. The book follows May from a bad marriage (think Raise the Red Lantern) to Shanghai, "the infamous city of danger and opportunity." May--either despite or because of her foot's deformity--is considered a woman of astonishing beauty. "Each part of May, her cuticles and wristbones and earlobes, the blue-white luminous hollow between her clavicles, inspired the same conclusion: that to assemble her had required more than the usual workaday genius of biology." Her beauty, her fetishistically bound feet, and her quick mastery of a handful of languages earn her a pile of money and finally a Western husband.

May develops a close relationship with her husband's Jewish family, especially with her unruly niece Alice. Harrison's scrupulously researched novel follows the two of them from Shanghai to London and back again, encountering along the way a colorful cast of women who've all suffered a disfigurement, mental or physical, that echoes May's. Finally several of the women come together in Nice, where each works out her destiny. The Binding Chair is far-flung, geographically and emotionally, and never quite coalesces, but perhaps the author was intentionally seeking to make a story about the Chinese and the Jews that has a feeling of diaspora. You've got to hand it to Harrison. Most writers, upon developing a fascination with Shanghai, would write a nice article for Travel & Leisure and have done with it. Kathryn Harrison has forged an ambitious novel. --Claire Dederer

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:38:38 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

The author of The Kiss tells the story of two women whose lives intersect in turn-of-the-century Shanghai; a Chinese girl named Mai, and her Western niece, Alice. In poised and elegant prose, Kathryn Harrison weaves in The Binding Chair; or, A Visit from the Foot Emancipation Society, a stunning story of women, travel, and flight; of love, revenge, and fear; of the search for home and the need to escape it. Set in alluring Shanghai at the turn of the century, The Binding Chair intertwines the destinies of a Chinese woman determined to forget her past and a Western girl focused on the promises of the future. Beautiful, charismatic, destructive May, escapes an arranged marriage in rural nineteenth-century China for life in a Shanghai brothel, where she meets Arthur, an Australian whose philanthropic pursuits lead him into one scrape after another. As a member of the Foot Emancipation Society, Arthur calls on May not for his pleasure but for her rehabilitation, only to find himself immediately and helplessly seduced by the sight of her bound feet. Reforming May is out of the question, so love-struck Arthur marries her instead and brings her home to live with him, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two girls, Alice and Cecily. In Alice, May sees the possibility of redemption: a surrogate for a child she has lost. And it is to May that Alice turns for the love her own mother withholds. But when the twelve-year-old is caught preparing her aunt's opium pipe, she is shipped off to a London boarding school, far from the dangerous influence of the woman who will come to reclaim her and to control the whole family. The Binding Chair unfolds among scenes of astonishing beauty and cruelty, in a lawless place where traditions and cultures clash, and where tragedy threatens a world built on the banks of unsettled waters, from the bustling Whangpoo River to the lake of blood in the Chinese afterworld. By turns shocking, exquisite, and hilarious, The Binding Chair is another spellbinding literary triumph by the writer whose work Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times has called "powerful and hypnotic."… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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