Lady Tan’s Circle of Women

Scribner. Jun. 2023. 368p. ISBN 9781982117085. $28. F
See’s (The Island of Sea Women) captivating protagonist, Lady Tan, is based on Doctor Tan Yunxian, whose book of medical cases, published in 1511 when she was 50 years old, was a resource and inspiration for this luminous novel. Living under China’s conservative Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), well-born Yunxian is expected to strictly follow Confucius’s Analects of Women, which exhorts women to adhere to repressive mandates, including “When happy, don’t exult with loud laughter” and “Respectfully serve your father-in-law; do not look at him directly.” Always pushing against the boundaries of gender and class, Yunxian learns medicine from her grandparents and befriends Meiling, who, as the daughter of a midwife (and later, a midwife herself), is considered beneath Yunxian’s social class. Their hard-fought, lifelong friendship, which centers this multilayered novel, gives them the strength to navigate complex familial relationships and pursue the work they love in a society that values women only as producers of men heirs.
VERDICT With incredible cultural and historical detail, beautifully drawn characters, and a dash of mystery, See’s languidly paced, exquisitely written novel about women helping women should be cherished by historical-fiction fans. This excellent book club choice may also have crossover appeal with YA readers.
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