Life likes to throw curve balls at us, especially when we’re unaware of who might steer us off the path we thought we had to stick to. Sometimes it’s good; other times, it can be disastrous. That’s the sentiment Weina Dai Randel, best-selling author of The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, brings in The Last Rose of Shanghai, a historical novel of forbidden love and loss in 1940s Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of the city.
There’s a Yiddish proverb that goes, “Man plans, God laughs.” Which is true. Even when you thought you’d planned everything down to the second, something will come along and throw a wrench in there. Perhaps because life is all about uncertainty and nothing ever goes according to plan. And Randel brings that same sort of vigor to her latest historical fiction book.
Aiyi Shao is a serious businesswoman. She’s a wealthy heiress but also has the cunning business acumen to run her own nightclub — all at the age of 20. Through grit and strategic networking, she has built up a nice business for herself. Despite all of her prowess, she is hampered by the fact that she’s Asian and a woman. Her family has betrothed her to a distant cousin, Cheng (someone she sees as another brother), who does his best to control everything she does in the club that is suffering under Japanese rule.
Ernest Reismann managed to escape Nazi Germany with his sister teenage Miriam by the skin of his teeth. With zero connections and an incredible ability to play the piano, he has to find a way to make enough money to bring his parents over. After being rejected by many places for work due to discrimination, he stumbles upon Aiyi’s club and she hires him as a pianist for her band, in spite of all the misgivings by her family and fiancé.
In moments, her faltering club is transformed into a successful one, bringing people hungry for new music to the door. It feels as if everything is going according to plan — until Aiyi realizes she’s fallen in love with Ernest (isn’t that how it always is?). Determined to not give into her baser instincts, she tries to continue working until Ernest is falsely accused of murder. With the Japanese breathing down her neck, she has to decide whether she’ll turn him in, or help him escape.
Randel takes a unique perspective by pairing an outsider with a Shanghainese heiress, showcasing the disparity and discrimination that was rampant during the 1940s, and continues to today. The storyline moves fast, jumping between present times and the past, it’s an exploration of Aiyi’s memory, reliving the moments for the documentary she’s being interviewed for.
There are several twists and unexpected turns that happen in The Last Rose of Shanghai, and much like life, Weina Dai Randel’s novel explores the possibilities life affords when things don’t go as planned. The harshness of the 1940s Japan-ruled Shanghai, and what Ernest had to escape in Germany, gives us a glimpse of what life was like back then, and something we (hopefully) don’t ever have to live through again. Then again, what is life if there aren’t pleasant (and unpleasant) surprises along the way?