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Review: Chinese Cinderella, Adeline Yen Mah

Adeline’s mother died when she was a baby.  As the fifth child, with three brothers and a sister, she was always going to be teased, but when she was a year old her father remarried a woman who had it out for her predecessor’s children.  Adeline’s stepmother was half French, automatically placing her above the rest of her Chinese family.  While Adeline and her four older siblings wore old clothes, ate cheap food, and weren’t allowed to see any of their friends outside of school, her stepmother’s children were pampered and treated with endless luxuries.  They walked to school while their younger siblings were given money for the tram or driven to the most exclusive schools available.  Adeline yearned to escape and distinguished herself at school, but her life often seemed like the worst misery possible.

This memoir was absolutely heartbreaking.  I just could not believe anyone could treat a little girl so badly.  It’s obvious that Adeline (her Chinese name is Jun-ling) is a clever child with a huge heart.  She loves her grandparents and her aunt, the only people who treat her well, with an earnest devotion that I wished she could have applied to her parents.  Instead, her stepmother convinces her father that his older children deserve nothing but the worst – subsistence food, hideous clothes, unflattering but cheap haircuts.  They are mocked in school and at home alike.

I was amazed that Adeline could retain her sense of self despite all of the abuse.  She has no self-esteem, but she is a good person and as such she makes friends.  Eventually, people flock to her, leading to one of the saddest scenes in the book.  It wouldn’t have been so bad even if the siblings that shared a mother with her had compassion, but they are either innately cruel, venting their unhappiness on their little sister, or seek her stepmother’s approval and then continue to mock her.

Adeline’s story is intertwined with the history and culture of China.  It’s often obvious that this is a middle grade book and that the history is slightly simplified for the child’s mind, but it lends flavor to the story and Adeline’s surroundings.  The book would really be perfect for a middle grade reader eager to learn more about the wider world – I know I learned virtually nothing of twentieth century China in school.  There is a follow-up for young adult readers which I have already requested from the library and am very eager to read.

Chinese Cinderella was a fast, simple but absolutely heartbreaking read.  It’s a memoir that will have you cheering for Adeline and hoping that she finally earns happiness in the end.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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