My Fair Concubine by Jeannie Lin is the author's take on the Pygmalion trope. Basically My Fair Lady set in 9th century China. I tend to love this theme because, when done well, it says a lot about identity, appearances, and how people perceive both. Also, the nature of this theme tends to mean a lot of forced proximity for the romantic couple. After all, one character has to tutor the other in the ways of polite society.
Chang Fei Long is not in a good situation. His sister, Pearl, has run away from home in the name of "true love." Which would be all well and good, except the romantic ninny was supposed to be a heqin bride. As a "princess," a betrothal was arranged for a "peace marriage." It was a diplomatic practice not unlike Queen Victoria marrying off her children and grandchildren all over Europe. Pearl running away is a disaster, because with his father's death, Fei Long has inherited a mess. His house is swimming under a sea of debt, and "losing face" within the diplomatic community would spell certain doom. Normally not one to take risks, with his back pushed against the wall, that's exactly what he does.
Yan Ling is a nobody. Having been left there as an infant, she knows nothing but the lowly tea house where she lives and works. She's a servant. Her job is to not be seen. However something pushes her over the edge the day Fei Long enters the tea room, and the unthinkable happens - he notices her. Then he spins her the most fantastical tale about "princesses" and "peace marriages" and he thinks he can tutor her in the ways of high society in two months (!). While the task is daunting, and she thinks he may be a little nuts, Yan is also a terribly practical girl. Gee, spend the rest of her days toiling in the tea house for masters who barely tolerate her, or go to a faraway land to live the life of a pampered princess? Yeah, not a tough choice - that is, until all those tutoring sessions with Fei Long blossom into romantic feelings.
This is an interesting departure of Lin, because although she's still working within the Tang Dynasty time period, the bulk of this story is set in the capital city of Changan. So readers get a glimpse of all the things such a city would have to offer - which includes the markets, entertainment district and a seedy underworld. It's a feast for the senses for a girl like Yan who has never gone anywhere or done anything outside of the narrow scope of the lowly tea house.
Fei Long is all about honor and propriety. Anything that would bring dishonor to the family name would be unthinkable, and would result in nothing but disaster. His father has left a mountain of debts he must deal with, but he must do so very carefully in order not to "lose face." Also, he needs this deception with Yan to go well. Because having "Pearl" pull out of this arranged marriage? Not a possibility. At all. Which means even though he's developing feelings for Yan, he mustn't admit them to anyone - including himself.
This story is a bit of a slow mover, basically because of the nature of the conflict. Fei Long is a very bottled-up man, from an emotional stand-point. His entire would is about appearances, honor, and respect. He's a man who has a lot of burdens, a lot riding on his shoulders. I wouldn't go so far as to label him as repressed, but he's not a terribly demonstrative fellow. So while he's tutoring Yan, he's also holding himself back from her.
Readers need to understand that, and get past the first half the book. There's not a lot of "action" during these chapters to keep one glued to the pages. The meat and potatoes of this story is all in the second half. When both characters realize that they have these feelings, and the emotional angst starts spilling out on to the page. There are some amazingly tender, heart-felt, and downright torturous emotional moments with the couple realizing that they may feel the way they feel but it doesn't change their reality. It was these moments of emotional truth that made this book for me. Yes it starts out deliberate, even a bit slow, but the payoff is worth it.
Final Grade = B-