Petals From The Sky
Author: Mingmei Yip
Kensington Books, March 2010
A Book Review by TOM LAVENTURE
Petals From The Sky (Kensington Books) is the third novel from Mingmei Yip, who says she puts a lot of her own life into her stories whether as events or composites of people who have shared her life.Petals From The Sky is a spiritual, physical and emotional journey with the central character, Du Meng Ning, drawing on her life of hard work and devotion to her family and faith to see her through a time of doubt.
She is born to parents that endure one disaster after another with a loving but gambling father and a stable but dominating mother. As a child Meng Ning is knocked down a well and amidst the frenzy of panicked faces above, she is comforted at the brief look down from Dai Nam, a Buddhist nun who tosses down a pendent of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and is then drawn to the compassionate teaching at the Golden Lotus Temple.
Many of the nuns, Dai Nam in particular, display physical and emotional scars that hint of tragedy leading them to the temple. Meng Ning notices the seemingly overt gestures the nuns would take to reject worldly desires as a flaw to the beauty of their simple and disciplined lives.
When her adult nun mentor, Yi Kong, shows an ambitious side in the secular world, Meng Ning begins to question whether the pursuit of non-attachment is an attachment in itself. Not all is as it seems, however, as Yip skillfully shows merit in purpose when walking a parallel path.
Meng Ning returns to Hong Kong to attend a Buddhist conference just prior to earning her doctorate in art in Paris, with the idea that she would finally follow through with her decision to “enter the gate” and become a nun.
Again, disaster postpones her decision – as she is instead quite taken by a young American physician, Michael Fuller, an aspiring Buddhist who is also a fan of Chinese art. Equally taken by Ming Mei, he pursues her from New York as she refuses his proposal and returns to Paris to complete her doctoral work, and perhaps to distance herself from the sudden and unexpected confusion.
Meng Ning is riddled with doubt and guilt for allowing herself to love a man, and again returns to Hong Kong to consider her sense of obligation to the nuns that mentored her through a tragic childhood and into a beautiful life of art and peace. With this sense of security Meng Ning is confused when she agrees to visit Michael in New York.
The story is set just before the transfer of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, and parallels the love story as Meng Ning is both dazzled and dismayed by a sophisticated but decadent New York. She meet Michaels mentor, an aging ‘Orientalist’ professor and father figure to Michael, but dislikes him as a snob – someone she says knows everything about China from books but nothing about its people.
Meng Ning decides to accept a project to document ancient Buddhist ruins in mainland China. It is again a chance to separate from her dilemma and to take on her first professional experience. As she works with a young nun who reminds her of herself she begins to come to terms with her situation and all paths converge in an enlightening conclusion.
Can Meng Ning continue on a path of spirituality while also accepting a man and marriage into her life?
Yip notes that her experience in related in the book that cultures are not so much barriers between people with common values and interests. She met her own spouse at a Buddhist conference and the two later moved to New York. She said that love conquers all when it is more than an “illusory” passion.
Meng Ning hesitates to express her painful dilemma to her nun mentors – who she fears would discourage her worldly relationship as “the illusory of human passion.” She turns inward for guidance – to afraid to talk to the nuns about her sudden but deep passion for a man.
She is equally reluctant to tell her mother that she was serious about a “gweilo”, a Cantonese term for foreigner.
A series of exciting and sometimes steamy adventures in New York, Hong Kong and mainland China, help to develop the relationship of Meng Ning and Michael. One more disaster looms that not only threatens their relationship but their very lives.
Yip strikes a balance between the idea of attaining wisdom and compassion through a solitary life of devotion to the temple, and attaining merits in a more worldly path along “ten thousand miles of red dust.”
Mingmei Yip was born in China, and also lived for some time in Vietnam. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and eventually settled in New York to marry in 1992 after working as faculty at Chinese University and Baptist University in Hong Kong. She was a print and radio columnist and authored five books in Chinese before writing her first two English language novels, “Peach Blossom Pavilion” (Kensington 2008), and “Petals From The Sky” (2010).
Yip states that there is a third novel about a woman adventurer during the time of the Silk Road, now in its final stages of development and expects to publish later this year.