This is a Tang Dynasty take on My Fair Lady, which I have almost zero familiarity with.
Fei Long went back to his family home after his father's death, only to learn that his sister Pearl had run off with her lover. This would have been scandalous no matter what, but since Pearl was supposed to be a heqin (peace marriage) bride, it was particularly disastrous. Not knowing what else to do, Fei Long came up with the idea of teaching Yan Ling, a tea girl, to act like a noble lady and take his sister's place. Yan Ling would have a home and a good life, and Fei Long's family would not be dishonored. What neither one of them counted on was falling in love.
I enjoyed this one so much that I was rarely willing to stop reading long enough to take notes. That makes writing this review a little difficult, but I'll try my best.
Unlike the other books by Lin that I've read, this one was light on action scenes. Fei Long had to be rescued at one point, and later he got to show off his archery prowess, but that was, I think, pretty much it. The bulk of the book was about Yan Ling learning how to act like a noble lady, Fei Long fretting over his family's debts, and the two of them falling for each other but being unable to say anything about their feelings.
Fei Long and Yan Ling were great characters. Yan Ling had spent most of her life keeping her head down and trying in vain to please the teahouse owner and his wife. She wasn't completely beaten down, however. When she thought Fei Long was trying to buy sex from her early on in the book, she was deeply offended, so much so that, without thinking, she doused him with tea. I wondered whether she'd be mulish about learning all the many things she needed to know in order to act like a princess, but she actually took her job very seriously, even going so far as to arrange study sessions beyond the ones Fei Long had already planned for her. I loved her determination and dedication – this was no annoyingly childish heroine.
Fei Long was very proper, ruled by honor and the responsibility he felt towards his servants and those who had helped his family. Even as he began to fall for Yan Ling, he knew he couldn't act on his feelings, because sending Yan Ling off to marry a Khitan tribal leader was most advantageous for everyone as a whole. Yan Ling would be treated as a princess for the rest of her life, Fei Long's family wouldn't lose face, and all the servants who depended on Fei Long could continue to work in his household. His unhappiness seemed like a small thing to him, by comparison.
Because Fei Long and Yan Ling were both such responsible people and couldn't hardly even envision doing anything other than what they'd agreed to do, they spent a good bit of time in love with each other but unable to vocalize their feelings. I loved this. I loved reading about the two of them sneaking looks at each other, trying to read each other's emotions, noticing little things about each other.
The people they were, and their reasons for not being together, kind of ruined the moment they finally had sex, however. There I was, thinking “But wait! What about Fei Long's servants and Minister Cao? Are they just going to give up on all of them?” It was Yan Ling who brought Fei Long's obligations up, and only after it was too late. The resolution to that problem, as well as the resolution to Fei Long's family's debts, all seemed just a little too easy.
All in all, despite the too-easy ending, I loved this book. I think it's my favorite of Lin's so far. Part of me hopes she'll write something starring Bai Shen, Fei Long's actor friend. His ego was enormous, and I wasn't happy with what he did in one scene involving Yan Ling, but he was usually a lot of fun.
While reading this, I had a lot of flashbacks to the Chinese calligraphy class I took in college. Fei Long was teaching Yan Ling how to write, and I was all, “Yeah, you definitely have to move your brush quickly. The paper absorbs the ink like a sponge." ::crying in remembered horror:: And I will never forget the one and only time the instructor said something positive about my homework. It was when we were practicing Li Style. His words were something to the effect of, “This is a little bit better.” That was high praise, coming from him.
Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
- Sungkyunkwan Scandal (live action TV series) - Other than the cross-dressing, this historical K-drama has a lot in common with Lin's book. Like Fei Long, Lee Seon Joon was very proper, responsible, and honorable, and fans of Bai Shen will probably like Gu Yong Ha. Oh, and there's an archery contest. I have written about this show.
- The Concubine (book) by Jade Lee - I haven't read this. Jade Lee is one of the few authors that came up when I went searching for more historical romances set in China. The heroine of this book is trying to better her impoverished family's fortunes by becoming one of the emperor's concubines (or maybe the Empress?). The hero is a friend of the Emperor.
- A Knight of Honour (book) by Anne Herries - I haven't read this. It looks to be a historical set in the Middle Ages. The description reminded me a lot of aspects of Lin's book: The hero is escorting the heroine to England to marry his half-brother. He falls in love with her, but it would be dishonorable for him to act on those feelings.
- Duchess of Fifth Avenue (book) by Ruth Ryan Langan - I haven't read this. It came up in my search for more romance novels based on My Fair Lady.