I was trying not to like this book because it seemed formulaic designed to mesmerize gullible bibliophiles, bestseller hounds, and book-to-movie producers. This formula combines an irresistibly charming cover; an exotic location worthy of magical cinematography; a time setting beset with political events hushed down in history books; tinges of controversy, oppression, and conspiracy; coming of age subplots; youthful romance; the intrigue that comes out of the blurring of truth with the term semi-autobiographical; and the romanticizing of literature and books, banned books at that. I wanted to resist all that and say, “whatthefafaya, that book is all hype.”
I’m almost ashamed to admit the formula worked. I was suckered in and I just found myself loving the book. Charmed by the characters - two adventurous teenage boys exiled to the countryside to be "reeducated" during China’s Cultural Revolution; a beautiful seamstress who I imagined to look like a younger, even more virginal Zhang Ziyi; and a delightful mix of odd and amusing personalities; even the supposed bad guys were lovable. I loved the seamstress and was happy with the choice she made at the end. I was mesmerized by the setting. Spellbound by the short, simple, but engaging plot. Completely captivated by the romance of a book about books. Totally beguiled despite my attempt to resist the formula.
I haven’t seen the movie adaptation of the book, and it almost seems unnecessary. The movie in my mind is probably better. Of course, it’s a book that called out to be filmed. Its author, Dai Sijie, is himself a filmmaker. Reading it, one can imagine hazy, dreamy, soft-focus cinematography of towering mountains and breathtaking cliffs, with a magnificent soundtrack, especially during two of my favorite parts – one is of the two boys crossing the narrow and dangerous mountain passage and the other is of Luo and the seamstress cavorting in the river.
Of course, my favorite part is the account of how they got their hands on the banned books, and I’ll leave that to you to read and discover how.