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Book Review: “Lady Tan’s Circle of Women” by Lisa See

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors and writers involved in the project(s) mentioned here, Pages and Pictures would not exist. Though this project is a book, it’s important to recognize that all art is impacted in the fight for a better industry. Pages and Pictures stands firmly behind WGA and SAG-AFTRA members as they fight for fair labour conditions. 

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is a heartfelt historical epic that centres a marginalized voice. This story highlights a crucial piece of Chinese history that is absolutely worth being remembered. Readers can expect classic Lisa See storytelling in that there’s a universality to these characters’ stories, even though they existed so long ago. See has also taken an actual historical figure and brilliantly brings her to life in a way that she’s tangible to a modern audience. 

Based on an actual historical doctor, this story is a beautiful tribute to a group of women who made their mark in their families, communities, and nation. Stories like this are a reminder that women have always played indispensable roles throughout history. The fact that See always ensures that her characters’ struggles are authentic to the time period in which they find themselves. It’s heartbreaking to see the parallels of women being underestimated and undervalued with an ancient age. 

A large part of what makes this story so effective is the fact that See rejects the current trend of “girl-bossing” historical figures. Tan Yunxian is allowed to be wildly flawed but still lovable. Her choices are always understandable, even when they’re disagreeable. Watching her grow and evolve in different stages of her life makes her all the more endearing. The fact that she never loses sight of her principles even when she faces forces against her also makes her easy to love and cheer for. 

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is also a meditation on the intricacies of female friendship. Tan Yunxian and Meiling show just how complex these relationships are. Following these two through the years is an endearing way to pay tribute to the highs and lows of these relationships. Even when they’re separated by distance, circumstance, and class, they always find their way back together. This shows just how vital female friendships are and always have been to women across time. 

Additionally, every part of this story is an expansive look at a part of ancient Chinese history. As a full disclosure, this writer has never been particularly interested in ancient history. However, See succeeds in making this time period come to life in a tangible way. The way she paints the intricacies of court life for these families is nothing less than immersive. It’s an effective way to get to know the characters on a deeper level. 

Finally, this story is also a sobering reminder that women have been impacted by patriarchal violence across cultures, societies, and generations. It’s alarming to think that even the most wealthy and intelligent women could never fully escape this cruelty. Watching this group of women persevere in their own way is a tribute to how strong women have always had to be.

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is the best kind of story from Lisa See. The way she brings this story to life is mesmerizing and immersive. It is always endearing to see women succeed in various time periods where their voices may have been silenced by history. Even those unfamiliar with this time period are sure to have something to love in these enthralling characters. This is the perfect medicine for those looking for compelling female-driven stories. 

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women is available now.

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