Almost from the very beginning of Lotus, a novel by Lijia Zhang that focuses on a Chinese prostitute (or ji) at the turn of the century, I could see a million different ways that the titular character’s heart was going to get shattered.
What I didn’t see, and what I could not have anticipated, was how many ways it would be healed up again after.
We meet Lotus admiring the ocean on New Year’s Day 2000, but her sight-seeing doesn’t last long—she’s almost immediately picked up by police as part of a sweeping arrest of dozens of working girls. But Lotus is not entirely without friends or cleverness, and she uses her one phone call to get her neighbor, Bing, to bail her out. Bing is a wannabe photographer whose photo essay of Lotus and the other girls working for her madame could be the thing to launch him into a career as a professional photographer.
Lotus beguiles him through the lens, but soon he can’t stop thinking about her when the camera’s put away, either. She’s beguiled others, too—a rich man she calls Funny Eye, a less-rich and more-desperate one she calls Thin Mustache both offer to make a semi-honest woman out of her by taking her on as a live-in mistress. But Lotus’ focus is on making as much money as possible so she can send her younger brother to college, which in turn would allow her poor rural family to afford unprecedented levels of comfort such as! More than one lightbulb! An indoor toilet! Luxuries abound!
Wrapped in all of this is a wealth of Chinese sayings—“The Weak Are the Prey of the Strong,” “No Sorrow is Greater Than the Death of the Heart,” “A Newborn Calf Isn’t Afraid of Tigers”—and plenty of cultural background to give a sense of foreign realism to the prose originally written in English (not translated). The writing is lovely and clear, though there’s something about its structure that retains the kind of rhythm I’ve come to expect in novels translated from Chinese to English. Zhang herself is Chinese and the idea for the novel was sparked by a deathbed confession of her grandmother, who had kept her past as a ji hidden for decades.
The concept of Lotus trying to make enough through prostitution to bring her rural family out of poverty ended up being far less like Pretty Woman than I expected. In the spirit of full disclosure, I haven’t actually seen Pretty Woman in its entirety, but I’ve seen clips. I’ve seen memes. I’ve seen hot takes about its feminine and/or anti-feminine plot points online.
This book, then, ended up being far less than my assumption about what Pretty Woman was than I expected. They both have prostitutes with hearts of gold. They both have—minor spoiler—men who meet the prostitutes in question as hired girls but gradually fall in love with them for the beauty inside. As I’m writing this, I’m also being reminded of a similar arc in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though Lotus is far more self-aware than Holly Golightly and has far more societal expectations holding her down, too.
But Lotus ends with a rallying cry for independence that made me want to cheer for her, even as I felt the cultural norms that had kept her down for the rest of the book would likely not go down so easily as all that. By that time, I was okay with a little fantasy. I was okay with stretching the bounds just a little so Lotus—and the reader—could have a happy ending.