After reading The Good Earth, it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile reading experience.
Pearl S. Buck, like John Steinbeck, knows how to combine characters, setting, and strong themes with great pacing and balanced prose… usually.
Editing a book is like creating a katana, I think. To create these masterful Japanese swords the blacksmith folds the metal many times, working out the impurities to strengthen its edge. A lot of writers edit a book in a similar manner, going through time after time to remove and distill their ideas down into a finely crafted weapon of storytelling. What can make a sequel feel dull is the lack of such honing down. “Sons” suffers from this, even if some of the pure delights of the first book are still perceptible in bits and pieces here.
Though the page count would lead you to believe otherwise, Sons feels long. Interesting characters and cultural exploration are to be expected, as are the continuations of the original story’s plot. Much of the book does feel unnecessary in my opinion, and there are fewer shocks and a lot less awe, because we have visited this setting before, and in the first book it was mesmerizing. The Good Earth was a truly great work in my mind, and I can’t help comparing the sequel to it.
In Sons, more than in the first part, characters spend a lot of time, grumbling and being indecisive.
The characters are all flawed, as we know but they should not be incompetent or impotent. Ms. Buck’s fascinating look into Chinese culture and traditions, drawn from life as it is, feels forced without new and refreshing themes to carry us along. The story is looser than in the first installment. Instead of a laser focus on the life of Wang Lung and his rise through his appreciation of the earth, in Sons there is a listlessness pervading the narrative. We get to see what his sons do but their selfish agendas don’t possess the same grandeur as the heartbreaking struggle of his youth.
The reader might expect Wang Lung’s sons to lack the same appreciation that made their father wise and successful, and to suffer as a consequence. Thankfully, there are still some excellent nods to “The Good Earth” that will make any fan smile. Whether its how the Tea House from the first book is used as a symbol of how little Wang Lung’s children understand their father and how his lessons are completely ignored. Pearl S. Buck also follows through on her promise from the prior book regarding how the wealthy house of Hwang fell and shows us how Wang’s house is decaying through the same cycle. But even these well-penned continuations are diminished when they come few and far between in a book without much as much substance to offer. If this book had been edited down it could have been nearly as riveted as the first. Knowing that there is a third in the series, I wonder if the second and third might have been combined and condensed to possibly equal the first.
The cyclical nature of life is a theme in this book and is an echo from the first. From how Wang the Third went off to be a rebel and his son follows suite, to how Wang the First’s life of idleness is passed to his sons, the cycle of father to son is an inescapable dilemma. But the theme is weakened by a lack of focus and takes far too long to mature. It is not until the very end of the book that we start to see impact and there is too little sustaining my attention by that point. Even the idea of the importance of land which was the heart of the first book fell flat for me. Though it tries to weave itself with the idea of cycle and legacy there is too much noise for it to bloom.
There are good elements in “Sons” but nearly everything significant is diluted with unnecessary length and exposition. It is hard to say if the writing is good as the individual sentences are tight, but the overall feel leaves something to be desired. If you like books that explore other cultures or times look no further than The Good Earth. A cursory look at the Nobel Prize winning author’s massive body of work will show that she spent a lifetime writing about China, Japan, Korea, and other cultures. The Chinese traditions in her trilogy are fascinating and it’s interesting to see how they effect people’s lives. However I think what the first book displays is enough to satisfy most peoples’ curiosities. The unfortunate truth the last line of “The Good Earth” did a better job of examining Wang’s sons then this entire book. One day I might tackle the third, but I think I would rather start looking into Bucks’ other fictions first.