My Favourite Wife

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am

My Favourite Wife

by Tony Parsons

HarperCollins, HK$288

There are surely millionaire businessmen in China who can tell Bordeaux from brandy and successful young women who make a living outside the sex industry. There may even be English expatriates who are not racist and Australian migrants who are not drunken slobs - but none of them will be found in My Favourite Wife.

Set in Shanghai, the most Chinese thing about this work is how much it resembles a traditional Chinese opera. In other words it's full of grotesques and well-worn stereotypes who combine limited emotions with exaggerated gestures. There is the corrupt Chinese official who likes to drink Chateau Lafite with a dousing of Sprite; the apartment building full of pliant mistresses who pine for their lovers while shopping for Louis Vuitton bags. And the crusty senior partner of a law firm whose wife is a drunk and complains non-stop about the sloth and dishonesty of the Chinese.

If the book has an original thought it must be hidden among cliches that are packed as tightly as rush-hour traffic on the Bund.

Somerset Maugham, who set The Painted Veil in China, was able to write about 'foreigners abroad' with depth and insight because his characters were based on profound insights into human behaviour. Parsons lacks that talent. His characters exist in a single dimension, on the surface of the page, and the only thing to be found between the lines in My Favourite Wife is blank space.

The novel starts with Becca Holden persuading her husband Bill that they should accept a posting to Shanghai. Bill is a corporate lawyer from a working-class background and he sees the foreign posting as a fast track to a partnership.

Parsons makes it obvious from the start that the new job is a chimera that will smash the Holdens on twin rocks of lust and dishonesty. The couple have a daughter, Holly, who has asthma. Shanghai is dirty and polluted. Becca has no job and misses England. These poorly crafted cogs are part of a creaky plot mechanism that forces Bill's wife and child back to London with unbelievable haste, leaving him to the seductive charms of the beautiful young women who reside in the apartment building where he lives.

The building is known as a nialong (gilded cage) because of all the kept women who live there. It doesn't seem like a good choice for corporate housing, especially for a young family like the Holdens, but Parsons is not interested in realism. He wants the easiest means to move his story along so we can proceed with the business of Bill Holden's dissolution.

Thus Becca leaves, Bill pines and Jinjin appears. The last is a nialong dweller and another kaleidoscope of cliches with her jet black hair and legs that just won't stop. The most significant early scene between Bill and Jinjin takes place in a tea house where they go for a clandestine rendezvous. By chance - imagine! - the senior partner and his wife arrive and she delivers a lecture to Bill on the dangers of 'getting into the bamboo', her euphemism for having sex with the locals, and insults Jinjin by suggesting she might be from Manchuria.

Fans of Parsons place him - along with Nick Hornby - in the lad-lit genre. Thus Bill's lying, fighting and philandering are given cover by the grievous errors of others, especially the women in his life. They are held responsible for leading him astray, leaving him alone, breaking his heart and so on. Such rampant misogyny doesn't make Parsons' work any more endearing but it is the lazy characterisations of life in Shanghai that cause this book to be so flawed. Half an hour in a Chinese take-away on Romford High Street would probably offer more insight into China and its recent transformations than Parsons provides in My Favourite Wife.