Title: The Many Daughters of Afong Moy
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication: 2 August 2022
I was immediately fascinated with this novel after reading the description and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. Ford takes on the idea of epigenetic inheritance and generational trauma through women of a Chinese family. Moving through a nurse in China serving with the Flying Tigers, a girl quarantined in San Francisco during a plague epidemic, a tech executive with a unique dating app, and many others, Dorothy discovers that trauma isn’t the only thing she’s inherited.
Each chapter focuses on a different woman’s perspective. The main character is Dorothy who goes through each woman’s memories to try to understand what’s going on with her own life and to make sure that her daughter doesn’t suffer like she has. Dorothy not only suffers through her mental health, but is also a poet. She at one time taught at a university before being let go due to her mental illness becoming detrimental to her work. None of this is helped by Dorothy’s boyfriend who takes every chance he can to put her down and gaslight her as well, at times. He’s completely awful! And his mother is no better. The catalyst for all of this is Annabel, Dorothy’s daughter who we can tell Dorothy absolutely loves and wants the best for her, hence the reason why Dorothy goes to do this experimental treatment of recovering memories. I’m actually going to talk about each woman separately before getting to how it all wraps up, with as little spoilers as possible.
Afong (1836): The woman that starts it all. She’s actually based on a real woman, the first Chinese woman to come to America. She’s identified in the press as Julia Foochee ching-chang-king, Miss Ching-Chang-foo, and Miss Keo-O-Kwang King, and would eventually go by the name Afong Moy. Her early life is mostly undocumented, but her middle years are a combination of fame and exploitation. Afong’s early years, Ford speculates, involve her arranged marriage to a man, who ended up dead in a mudslide. The families arranged for her to still marry him, but one of his other wives made an arrangement for her to be shipped off to America. She was exploited by entertainment types who thought different was strange and horrific. Sadly, she ended up dying on the street, homeless and alone. (This is revealed in the author’s note and follows the same path in the story, so it’s not much of a spoiler). During her time, a man is trying to find her, someone who seems to be following her in each life.
Lai King (1892): She lives in San Francisco with her parents when the bubonic plague spreads through Chinatown. Because Chinatown was immigrants, they were all quarantined and forced to stay, while people who were white were allowed to leave the area. This event did take place but Ford moved it up about a decade, in actuality, the plague came in 1900. Lai King and her parents are trying to do their best to survive, but it’s soon clear that Lai King’s parents won’t make it out. Lai King’s mother finds a ship that will take Lai King to Canton, but only Lai King. Her mother gives her instructions to go there to look for her mother’s family to take her in. While her mother is taking Lai King to the ship, they are also outrunning fire set to Chinatown by San Francisco’s firemen. The next chapter involving Lai King centers on her time on the ship, we only hear about Lai King’s life through her daughter’s memories later on.
Zoe (1927): Zoe is a young girl who goes to a private school in England that famously has no rules. It’s called Summerhill. The idea of it’s creation was that school should fit the child rather than the other way around. It’s run as a democratic community with school meetings where anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. During Zoe’s chapters, she develops a crush on one of her female teachers, who encourages Zoe to not settle. The big event that happens here is when the school decides to learn about different forms of government through running the school for a week with a fascist government. Cause that isn’t going to create problems….it absolutely does.
Faye (1942): Faye is a nurse with the Flying Tigers during WWII. Her first chapter in the book is her saving a pilot who practically crash landed at the base she’s working at. Sadly, the pilot dies after the surgery, from infection or complication. But Faye can’t get him out of her mind. He’s a constant presence, especially because one of the items on his person was a picture of her, but she’s never met him.
Greta (2014): Greta is a tech executive for the dating app, Syren. We meet Greta the night that Syren receives the award for Geekwire’s App of the Year. Greta is famously single and the app is actually funded almost exclusively by a man rumored to have paid off women who’d accuse him of sexual assault. The whole app is supposed to be a feminist dating app, where women make the first move and protects their identities. The algorithm was about women self-selecting the inner workings of a person. Physicality was an afterthought. But the next day, Greta is approached by the man who funded the app, Carter Branson. He takes her out that night, and the next day drops his stock of Syren. Greta’s life completely spirals.
And now we’re back with Dorothy, who travels through all these women’s memories. She sees what they lived through and how they lived first hand. They all are trying to deal with not only generational trauma but their own issues. For Zoe, it’s her sexuality, and Faye is considered a cautionary tale for other young women about what happens when you don’t get married, and other issues of living in the world. It all comes together in the end, during a hurricane, when Dorothy overdoses on an entire bottle of pills. Se experiences echoes of each woman.
Our last person, that has only one chapter is Annabel, Dorothy’s daughter. We get to see and understand what happened to Dorothy after the storm. Annabel is also a poet like her mother and is able to live a life of purpose and not be as plagued by all the women before them. It is an absolutely lovely ending to such a beautiful and thought provoking novel.
Happy Reading Darlings!