four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
By: 
Xiaolu Guo
user_rating: 
0

A-A Concise Chinese English DictionaryWhen her newly prosperous parents send Zhuang Xiao Qiao ("Z" to those who can't pronounce her name) from China to London, they intend for her to learn English. Although her language skills do improve, she ends up majoring in love and sex. One month into her sojourn, she takes a casual comment ("Be my guest") literally and moves in with a stranger. They sleep together, and her relationship with the unnamed Englishman illuminates the rocky terrain of cultural difference. Z augments her lessons with pornography and, at her lover's urging, with a solo tour of Europe. By the time her one-year student visa expires, she has acquired fluency both in English and in the complexity of human relationships.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 304 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0385520298

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In steadily improving (and comically blunt) English, Z records a year of her sexual discovery and cultural confusion, along with new words like pub, migraine, and bisexual. ... Guo's novel, her first in English, is smartly absorbing." Hannah Tucker

Guardian (U.K) 4 of 5 Stars
"A lot of [the novel] is subtle and gently troubling: [Z's] perfectly guiltless reading of his private diaries while he is away, her incapacity or refusal to understand what is important about privacy; his incapacity or refusal to commit himself to their relationship, from which he increasingly pulls away, cherishing his unshared selfhood, his precious privacy. Or the problem of manners." Ursula K. Le Guin

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"By turns hilarious and poignant, it is the fictive journal of a 23-year-old Chinese peasant girl. ... Z is an appealing protagonist: curious about her new world, tough as her peasant background (abused by a mother who wanted a son), ferociously dedicated to improving her English, but also tender as she discovers love and sex with the man she addresses in the journal only as 'you.'" Maya Muir

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"While Dictionary initially seems a fast, breezy read, don't be so easily entertained as to miss the many nuances. Just like the single-word entry markers, beyond the most obvious definitions are deeper, more satisfying meanings." Terry Hong

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"What makes this novel winsome is hearing the authentic voice of a young woman-bewildered, self-deprecating, funny, wise-as she navigates the world on her own." Jacqueline Blais

Chicago Sun Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Guo is a sensitive writer, and perhaps my surprise, even my bewilderment, at her narrative technique has more to do with the novelty of the idea than any real weakness thereof. ... [The novel] takes us into a new territory, all the more exciting for its virginity." Vikram Johri

Financial Times (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"This is an entertaining novel that will have fans. But Xiaolu Guo should trust herself-and her reader-to rely on the writing to carry her story, and should put more of her own voice back into her work." Rosie Blau

Critical Summary

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers remains light as it explores love across a cultural divide. The novel-Xiaolu Guo's first in English-was short-listed for Britain's 2007 Orange Prize and has charmed critics on this side of the pond as well. Inspired, in part, by Guo's own experience relocating from China to London, the novel is a moving and mostly humorous narrative of cultural dislocation. Some critics had difficulty adjusting to Z's initially halting English, but most agreed the obstacle was worth overcoming. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is a compelling read that will offer many native-English speakers a new perspective on themselves and their language.