I had really high hopes for The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel: A Novel by Maureen Lindley, it has some of my favorite elements – historical fiction, set in Asia and offering a glimpse into a piece of Asian life. But my feelings for this book are lukewarm. It’s not that it wasn’t well written, or that there wasn’t a good flow or overall storytelling. In this instance it really was a case of disliking a main character so much that I had a hard time looking past it.
Eastern Jewel (later renamed Yoshiko) is a princess born to a concubine in China in 1906. Beyond being a spoiled child, one of her pastimes was spying (which turned out to be good training for her future career). When she is eight, she spies on the wrong person – her father – and he sends her away to a connected, influential family in Japan.
While she never bonds with her new adoptive mother and is treated as a plaything for her adoptive father and grandfather, she still forms a love and loyalty to Japan. As Eastern Jewel grows up in the house, her adoptive father offers her to valued connections, and she falls in love with one of these men. It is this experience of loving him and being rejected that hardens her resolve to put herself and her needs first in all matters.
She is eventually given in marriage to a Mongolian prince. She hates Mongolia, it is cold and to her it is boring. She finds excitement in emotionally manipulating her brother-in-law to help her in her plot to escape from Mongolia. Following her escape less than a year after she is married, she builds a life for herself in Tokyo, entertaining important clients of her landlord, Tamura. Eastern Jewel is kept busy and interested, but as her interest wanes, she leaves for Shanghai where her partying and connections eventually put her in a position where she is recruited as a Japanese spy.
Given her love of partying and socializing, she easily slips into the role of a spy, gaining confidences and influencing the actions of others on behalf of Japan. During her time as a spy she (as best she could) falls in love with two men but of course can not let herself fully create a relationship with either. Eastern Jewel continues to be a spy until her arrest by the Chinese in Peking in 1945.
Eastern Jewel’s life portrayed in the pages of this book certainly provides for a great story, but as I said I just did not like Eastern Jewel enough to really care about her. I could not find any likable part of her. She used and hurt others with seemingly little concern. To me, it seemed like she had no heart and without some connection to such a difficult character, I could not connect with this book as much as I had hoped.
The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel: A Novel
Author: Maureen Lindley
Published: September 1, 2009 (Paperback)
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA