It’s been five years since William Eng was taken to the Sacred Heart Orphanage, believing that his mother has passed and his father a mystery that is forever unsolved. But while on an outing to the local movie theater, it took one glance at movie star Willow Frost for William to realize that his mother is alive and well and, for the time being, in the Seattle area. Together with his friend Charlotte, they escape the orphanage and track down the mysterious Willow, only to learn that despite what her public image may assure otherwise, there’s a backstory that’s not for the faint of heart.
This is just the tip of the ice berg of “Songs of Willow Frost;” the second novel of Jamie Ford. With the Great Depression taking its toll amidst the boom of the movie industry, he tells of a tragic story that feels so real to be fictional, to the point where you come to really care about each of the main characters. The story is so sad, that I’m actually mad at myself for not shedding a tear or two.
At the same time, I don’t feel comfortable with giving this novel a five-star rating when the biggest of its flaws takes up the entirety of the story; Liu Song’s backstory. There’s more of a focus on how she wound out childless and going under the name Willow Frost the movie star, than there are of the characters mentioned in the synopsis.In fact, everything that’s mentioned in the synopsis – the discovery, the escape from the orphanage – all happen within the first 80-some pages of the novel. That’s not to say that her backstory is not relevant to her circumstance now, for it absolutely is, but I felt there wasn’t enough of William mentioned in the story and his journey of discovering who she is.
Another thing, in case it wasn’t so obvious before, is that Liu Song’s story is just straight up sad; to the point where there’s no resolution of any kind. She goes through more hardships than most adults would go through in there lifetimes, and looking back on it all now, I can’t help think to myself: What was the purpose? Why put her through so much pain with ultimately no way out? Even in stardom, she still has shackles and baggage weighing her down. It just seemed like an experiment of figuring out ways to break Liu Song down.
I’ve also come to realize something over the course of reading this novel, and that is the older I get, the more frustrated I get with reading historical fiction. The two leads are Chinese American; in a time where a white person could call them “oriental” without getting slapped in the face, are considered “the exotic other,” surprise people when they speak perfect English, and play background characters in films where yellowface was much more in your face. That together with being a woman of color at such a time in history puts even more unfair treatment on the character of Liu Song. It’s books like “Songs of Willow Frost” that make me angry that such a mentality and treatment towards people existed (and, to some extent, still does to this day). It’s with that that I’m relieved that I wasn’t alive then.
On a five-star scale, I’d give “Songs of Willow Frost” three stars. It’s very well researched with Ford taking its time period in strive and it has characters that you come to care for their well being. But I’m having trouble digesting it full way when a. William and Charlotte were barely in the novel and b. there was barely ever a turning point in the tragic tale of Liu Song.