Pearl S. Buck was an intensely prolific author, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for her 1931 novel, The Good Earth , and the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize for literature.
Her tales of peasant life in China, where she was raised by missionary parents, provided intimate glimpses into a world then unknown to most Westerners.
Today, Buck's childhood home in China houses a museum dedicated to her legacy, while her grave in the Pennsylvania countryside bears a tombstone with her Chinese name -- a nod to the cultural duality that marked the writer's life and work.
In Pearl of China , Anchee Min, whose best-selling memoir Red Azalea recounted the story of her childhood in communist China, spins a fictional account of Buck's early life in China and her imagined friendship with the narrator, a young Chinese girl named Willow Yee.
The two women form a spiritual and emotional bond that resists political turmoil, the violence of civil war, romantic rivalry and eventually, the distance imposed by communism.
The theme of separation from homeland, whether it is one's home by birth or by heart, permeates the novel, exemplified by this description of Pearl's final days in China: "She would be uprooted and transplanted to America, a country she called home but barely knew. Later in her life, this last day in China would haunt her."
As a teenager, Min followed an order issued by Madame Mao to denounce Buck as an "American cultural imperialist."
After Min was given a copy of The Good Earth in 1996, however, she felt an immediate respect and admiration for Buck's portrayal of Chinese peasant life.
Pearl of China grew out of that epiphany. As a result, the novel often reads like an unabashed fan letter to Buck, painting an idealized portrait of the artist as a patient, empathetic and strong-willed writer whose love for China and its people never wavered, even when the country's government drove Buck and her family into exile.
The backdrop of the Boxer Uprising, civil unrest and the brutal rise of communism lends historical authenticity to the intimate story of friendship, but too often, the dialogue and the storytelling seem stilted and artificial.
The narrative's most moving moments come when Min describes the simple, yet seemingly indestructible, connection between Pearl and Willow as they grow from children gleefully waiting for the popcorn man into women struggling with unhappy marriages and personal sorrow.
"I had known Pearl's loneliness since we were children. She had always searched for her own kind. That didn't mean another Westerner. It meant another soul that experienced both the Eastern and Western worlds," Willow seems to murmur after Pearl is visited by unforeseen tragedy.
In those moments, when human emotions transcend cultural and geographical borders, Min echoes Buck's talent for showing compassion and empathy toward her characters, and like her, reveals the power and dignity contained in the lives of ordinary people.