I read this book because I loved the movie. The book actually contains three unrelated stories, the first of which was the basis for the movie. All three fit into a total of under 300 pages, so the movie must have been relatively loosely based on the book.
I did not like this book. I kept going through the first, familiar story, even though I didn’t think it worked as well as the movie. But I gave up in the middle of the second one: it was dull, ugly and depressing.
The title story is about a girl who becomes the fourth wife of a rich man, and her relationship with the other three wives. Scheming, adultery, cruelty, jockeying for position and manipulation. It ends, as Chinese stories often seem to do, in tragedy.
The second story, “Nineteen Thirty-Four Escapes” is about the wife (again) of a peasant who’s moved to town and left her behind to take care of the children and their plot of land. It’s all about poverty, tiredness, struggle and cruelty. Perhaps this is for ideological reasons (it’s a book about pre-Communist times written during the Communist times, after all) but whatever the reason, I want no more of it. I also found it confusing – Chinese literary conventions being different from Western ones – but I could have lived with that if it hadn’t been for the unpleasantness of it all.
The third story I can’t say anything about because I never read it.