Beautiful as Yesterday by Fan Wu is a snapshot into the lives of three women – mother Fenglan, and daughters Mary and Ingrid – as they try to come to terms with their own lives, and overcome the ghosts of the past that tear them apart. Running away from the heartbreak of an ended relationship, Mary moves to the United States to attend graduate school. Before long, she is married to Bob, an American-born Chinese, and her dreams of being the next Madame Currie are replaced by motherhood and a job at a Silicon Valley Fortune 500 company. Their lives are seemingly content and at the same time at odds with each other. Mary is deeply religious and loyal to her Chinese upbringing and traditions, including taking in her elderly mother; Bob has long ago stopped attending church and is only Chinese by birth, not in practice. Mary is quietly resentful of the lull in her marriage and Bob’s opposition to her mother’s immigration, while Bob hides out in his demanding job.
Unlike her sister, Ingrid is openly resentful of Mary’s influence over her life. Ingrid believes (perhaps accurately) that Mary feels entitled to dictate the paths that she takes since she brought her to the United State and paid for her education. In opposition, Ingrid moves from San Francisco to New York and fleets from one job to another, from one man to another, never settling or committing to anything or anyone. Estranged from each other for some time, the two sisters are brought back together by their mother’s temporary – but Mary hopes permanent – visit.
Having lived most of her life in poverty, working at a factory and taking care of her husband and children, Fenglan sees herself as a nuisance to her older daughter’s family and is determined to return to China to live out her life. But it is her presence that brings this geographically and otherwise divided family together, and her hesitant revelations about the past that give everyone a better understanding and appreciation of each other.
Skillfully written, Beautiful as Yesterday is somewhat reminiscent of Fan Wu’s own life – born in China to parents slighted by the Cultural Revolution, Fan also moved to the United States to pursue a graduate degree and later worked in Silicon Valley. Given her background, Fan has a knack for describing the realities of immigrant life: the almost unintended assimilation of younger generations and the melancholy and constant relapses to the past of older generations. However, the novel can otherwise be described as dry and abrupt, and stops short of being enjoyable. Fan skims the surface but never shows the full depths of her characters; they often come across as emotionless even when faced with heart-wrenching or life-changing events.
The biggest pitfall of the novel, in my opinion, is that nothing happens. Seemingly important revelations come and go with little notice, and Fan builds up certain situations only to completely drop them with no resolution. Beautiful as Yesterday can be best described as a story about someone’s every day ordinary life, with little excitement for the reader.
For more information, please visit Fan Wu’s website. Fan Wu is also the author of February Flowers.