On the eve of WWII, the foreign-controlled port of Shanghai was the rendezvous for the 20th century's most outlandish adventurers, all under the watchful eye of the fabulously wealthy Sir Victor Sassoon. Emily Hahn was a legendary New Yorker writer who would cover China for nearly 50 years, and play an integral part in opening Asia up to the West. But at the height of the Depression, "Mickey" Hahn, had just arrived in Shanghai nursing a broken heart after a disappointing affair with an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter, convinced she would never love again. After entering Sassoon's glamorous Cathay Hotel, Hahn is absorbed into the social swirl of the expats drawn to pre-war China, among them Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Harold Acton, and the colourful gangster named Morris "Two-Gun" Cohen. But when she meets Zau Sinmay, a Chinese poet from an illustrious family, she discovers the real Shanghai through his eyes: the city of rich colonials, triple agents, opium-smokers, displaced Chinese peasants, and increasingly desperate White Russian and Jewish refugees - a place her innate curiosity will lead her to discover first hand. But danger lurks on the horizon and Mickey barely makes it out alive as the brutal Japanese occupation destroys the seductive world of pre-war Shanghai and Mao Tse-tung's Communists come to power in China.
©2016 St Martin's Press (P)2016 Audible, Inc.
This sounded like an enjoyable listen: cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s, which I'd heard was a glamorous and exciting place. But Taras Grescoe's book lacks focus. The title led me to expect a tale of the foreign colony in Shanghai. It's partly that, but it's also a great deal about the American writer Emily (Mickey) Hahn, whose columns for The New Yorker and the books that came out of them were very popular, and Victor Sassoon, a British businessman who owned, among other properties, the Cathay Hotel (the "Shanghai Grand" of the title).
If the book has a focus, it's on Hahn, but she doesn't even appear until Part Two, and Grescoe often drops her to write about other people and events. At least her backstory is presented coherently; Sassoon's is confusingly fragmented and events are repeated several times. Most critically, though, is that none of these colorful characters ever come to life, because Grescoe seldom quotes them. In the case of someone like Sassoon, whose literary output was limited to telegraphic entries in a diary, that is no loss, but Hahn was a prolific and lively writer. We get excerpts of her letters to family, but none of what made her a famous and popular writer. Her lover, Zhau Sinmay (the so-called "forbidden love" of the subtitle) was a poet, but we never hear him in his own voice. Nor do we hear from the novelists, playwrights, and many journalists who formed a large part of Shanghai's foreign colony.
Christine Marshall's reading suggests that she is an inexperienced narrator: she is over-expressive, as though she felt that she ought to be "contributing" something to the auditory experience, and she sometimes gives the impression that she didn't read the book before recording it. (For instance, when Grescoe writes that someone walking down a street in Shanghai "would have seen" something, she stresses "would" as though it meant "might.")
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