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I read this book a month ago, when I was at the hospital waiting to get a procedure done. This was the perfect book to help me take my mind off my worries. Set in China and then England, this story perfectly embodies the definition of sweeping. It does so both in the scope of the story, and also in effect: it will transport you into the world of Catherine Blade and Leighton Atwood.
It took me a month to figure out what to say, and this is it: I still don't really know what to say about this novel. There's something so wonderfully elusive about Sherry Thomas's latest novel, that makes it difficult to pin down. Is it a traditional Victorian romance? In some aspects it is. Is it an adventure story? In some respect it is. But it is also more.
After I finished reading My Beautiful Enemy, the first thing that came to mind was that I finally understand that there is a distinction between love, desire and longing.
This is a novel about longing -- a longing that defied time, distance, and memory. When our hero and heroine first met, that had assumed different identities because of their missions. It was a moment out of time, and away from their responsibilities. It was a rare, evanescent moment where they could be themselves -- without the past or the future to hinder them.
But a moment is called a moment for a reason. It is as fleeting as a bubble -- and reality intrudes in a terrible and tragic way, causing our hero and heroine's separation. Oceans and actual lives divide them. They are, literally, a world away from each other -- and they (and we never thought there would be any possibility of ever seeing each other again.)
This is where Sherry Thomas turns Romantic. (Capital letter intended. Reference to 19th-century Romanticism intended.) . She makes a way for Ying Ying to meet her Persian again, but she doesn't make it easy for them. They remember each other, but there's an uncertainty to this remembering. Is it really him? She thought he was a merchant. Is it really her? He thought she was a traveler.
He had not recognised the woman who came with Mrs. Reynolds and Mrs. Chase. She was different -- that much he had sensed instantly. But he had not connected the subdued, almost fragile-looking woman in the old-fashioned brown traveling dress to the girl who had stolen his heart with her swagger and vitality.
Until he looked into her eyes, the color of the Atlantic in winter, and understood the joke fate had chosen to play.
Who was this woman, all her sharp edges sheared off and scrubbed smooth?
- Chapter 3
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The same shock overcame Catherine again: the same shock, the same searing happiness, then, the same throat-constricting realisation that, dead or alive, he remained lost to her.
- Chapter 9
Then there's the story of what happened during their separation, and how (and when) Catherine will tell Leighton about it.
I'm thinking of a proper metaphor to talk about the layers upon layers of stories in My Beautiful Enemy. Like an onion? Or a flower? Or a cabbage? Or like skin? And then it came to me: this story is like a diamond with all its facets. It's just so beautiful how separate each story is, but how connected they are: Leighton's father and Mr Gordon. Leighton's mother. Ying ying's mother and Da-ren. Ying ying and Da-ren. They are all different experiences of love, with different outcomes -- each one bringing us closer to discovering what it means to desperately long for someone.
...And Da-ren, the true father figure in her life, the man who'd brought her mother to Peking and given the latter a life of security and luxury, Catherine had no idea what he thought of her.
And that was why she was in England, wasn't it, yet another attempt to win his approval?
- Chapter 1
Sherry Thomas also presents the opposite of longing -- a loathing so bone-deep that it becomes a part of who you are. It is this emotion that Catherine Blade feels for The Centipede (Lin). It's interesting that Catherine would pursue Lin with such relentlessness and focus. I had a bit of trouble following the Centipede/Lin story and still can't quite understand his motivations (was it political? personal? madness?) -- but, what is clear is that he is a villain with villainous intent -- and it was up to Catherine to stop him.
I cry each time I read a Sherry Tomas novel, and this was no exception. I still remember how I cried while reading her debut novel, Private Arrangements. That reduced me to sobbing and hiccups. My Beautiful Enemy was a quieter, more contemplative (and more dramatic) kind of crying: lots of tears rolling down my face, lots of clutching at my chest, hoping you heart doesn't burst out from so much emotion.
She bit the inside of her lip. "Why are you telling me this?"
Why do you want me to think that there could be a future for us?
He looked at her. She gazed back and saw neither the fearless young Persian nor the wary, wounded Englishman, but simply a man who had never forgotten her, not for a moment.
- Chapter 15
Yes, it's that beautiful. Yes, you should read it. (And after, you will never look at a bar of chocolate or a packet of Darjeeling tea without thinking of Leighton and Catherine.)
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I'm so glad Sherry Thomas created this companion novella to her novel, because it is what humanises Catherine and Leighton. We see them as young children and the events that shaped them as adults -- and we realise the incredible (and incredibly long and arduous) journey Leighton took to China (and to Catherine).
Does this read well as a stand-alone? When the e-novella first came out, I tried to read it but couldn't appreciate the story. I read it again AFTER I finished reading My Beautiful Enemy, and it made more sense that way. I didn't think Thomas had enough time to completely build up the world in this novella, so many of the Wu Xia elements might be a bit difficult to follow -- this is more fully-explored in My Beautiful Enemy.
What this novel does, though, is flesh out Catherine's personality and the training she underwent with her grandmother. It's a brutal childhood, which explains why Catherine is so hard and rough. I honestly didn't think she was an easy person to love, and thought it was ironic how much she yearned for the love and acceptance of her mother (and of Da-ren). But these novels aren't about beautiful people with beautiful lives finding love -- it's about the daughter of a courtesan, and the son of a man who had to hide his true self and a woman who loved another.
To find out more about Sherry Thomas and her amazing, amazing books, click below: