Under the One Child Policy, everyone plotted to have a son.
Now 40 million of them can’t find wives.
China’s One Child Policy and its cultural preference for male heirs have created a society overrun by 40 million unmarriageable men. By the year 2030, more than twenty-five percent of men in their late thirties will not have a family of their own. An Excess Male is one such leftover man’s quest for love and family under a State that seeks to glorify its past mistakes and impose order through authoritarian measures, reinvigorated Communist ideals, and social engineering.
Wei-guo holds fast to the belief that as long as he continues to improve himself, his small business, and in turn, his country, his chance at love will come. He finally saves up the dowry required to enter matchmaking talks at the lowest rung as a third husband—the maximum allowed by law. Only a single family—one harboring an illegal spouse—shows interest, yet with May-ling and her two husbands, Wei-guo feels seen, heard, and connected to like never before. But everyone and everything—walls, streetlights, garbage cans—are listening, and men, excess or not, are dispensable to the State. Wei-guo must reach a new understanding of patriotism and test the limits of his love and his resolve in order to save himself and this family he has come to hold dear.
This was my book choice for this year for book club. I tried to bring books that weren’t part of trilogies or super long series and were written by women authors. Noumenon was another that I suggested for book club, but this was the one that was picked. Both were really thought provoking and good.
A quick google search of the male to female population disparity in China (and in India) is all you need to understand the premise of this book, and the author took a stab at figuring out how society is going to look and function to overcome this difference.
The book starts by introducing us to Wei-guo, a personal trainer who is interviewing to be the third husband to May-ling. He is with his two fathers (his mother has passed) with May-ling and her two husbands–Hann, husband one, who is handsome and normal, and his brother, Xiong-Xin (XX), an anti-social IT person. Wei-guo thinks they have a real attraction, but his fathers think that he should hold out for a better match even though they are spending a fortune on a matchmaker to ensure he gets to be married at all. (His mother has already passed.) The fathers don’t like the arrangement that May-ling gets to pick her nights with each husband (unlike the every other arrangement they had in their “Advanced Marriage” or that they are requesting an Intelligence Test on top of “the usual” – STD panels, genetic panel, and financials, but May-ling has passed Wei-guo her number on the way out.
Wei-guo as a bachelor, takes part in Strategic Games. It’s a way for the many (MANY) single men to get out and socialize and take their minds off of their situation. But like many things in China, it has government overreach too. The General of each team is required to submit the names of 4.9% of his team to be assessed if they are mentally unstable (those who are gay or unfit in any way are sterilized).
Despite what his fathers think, Wei-guo calls May-ling, and he invites her to his studio. She agrees and shows up disheveled with her wild child, BeiBei. Beibei likes Wei-guo, who in his early 40’s is much younger than his other two dads. He plays with BeiBei until Hann, husband one, arrives to take them home. Wei-guo is upset because it was not the date he had planned, and now Hann shows up to merengue with May-ling (Wei-guo’s original date plan), but Hann dances with Wei-guo to teach him how to dance as well.
We learn that the “Family Advancement” (aka taking husband #3) stemmed from an argument between Hann and May-ling. May-ling is apparently having fertility problems, but he can’t be too critical because we learn that he is gay, which is a crime, and pretending to not be gay is a bigger crime, and May-ling has suggested unit dissolution, but Hann is concerned about the consequences, thus the push for Wei-guo to join the family. He can’t be found out and lose his family (especially his son BeiBei) and his livelihood. His badminton team is his escape, as it is comprised entirely of secretly gay men. To add to the family secrets, it is suspected that XX is autistic, a “Lost Boy” (also a sterilization offense), and he doesn’t have any interest in May-ling despite pressure on both of them from Hann. They haven’t produced a child together which is in violation of their marriage (but May-ling is afraid of having a Lost Boy of her own). Hann begins to think maybe adding Wei-guo might be a good thing as long as he can keep their secrets. May-ling herself doesn’t seem to have any secrets, but she doesn’t have an upper class upbringing. Her parents are gambling addicts and while the rest of China was trying to have boys, her parents somehow had 6 daughters allowing them to make a fortune in dowries.
The book mostly is a people drama, rather than a dystopian or sci-fi novel. Both Hann and XX would have probably been better off being born in a society where they could be free to be themselves – Hann to be married to another man, and XX to remain unmarried and be a dog rescuer. Wei-guo seems like he would be happy just in a “normal” family with May-ling and some children. At the end of the day though, that’s not the reality, so they need to figure out a way to make it work. Hann is even more torn though when his company offers to provide him with a bigger apartment only if he does not take his family “to the max” (aka not take on Wei-guo as a third husband).
The story proceeds as an interesting literary fiction novel until it’s nearing the end when Wei-guo’s Strategic Games are sabotaged just on the night he has invited XX to attend. Their train is inadvertently stopped by some government officials pressing again to provide names of the mentally unstable. XX unlocks the train so that all of the team is able to get out and see what’s going on before Wei-guo has to submit any names.
In the mean time, Jimmy, a hanger on of the badminton club has started to blackmail Hann and others in the league. He meets with the other member who was in the photograph Jimmy has to try to come up with a solution. And at the same time, XX has decided that he has had enough and wants to get divorced. This draws more attention to their family so when Jimmy accuses Hann of immoral behavior, he is taken to jail and cannot see BeiBei or any others in the family. XX gets to work trying to figure out how to save Hann. Hann encourages XX to reach out to Wei-guo to see if he is still interested in the marriage (after all, May-ling needs at least 2 husbands to take care of her). Wei-guo is interested, but the plot thickens after the government interferes (yet again) on the Strategic Games and kills them all, save Wei-guo, during one of their missions.
In the end, XX is the hero of the book, covering for Wei-guo and getting him to safety with Madam Mao (a group of nuns who live in the Mao Mausoleum) by agreeing to install a security system for them. XX asks for additional money from Wei-guo’s dads to pay Madam Mao while alerting them to what’s going on. XX and May-ling work together to blackmail the blackmailers, in the end getting 2 people–Hann and a random person–released from the sex correction facility. When Wei-guo gets out of Madam Mao’s, he appears on television to explain what happened that night and how he had no part in it because he was sick for a few days. The thought is that by getting Wei-guo some celebrity, it will be less likely for the government to kill the only surviving member of a brutal attack. (The segment is highly edited before it’s shown of course.) In the end, Hann cannot come home, but they figure out a way to make it work for him to see BeiBei periodically in secret. It’s a…sort of happy ending.
Verdict: 4 stars
I really liked this book up until the ending. And by “like it”, I mean that I thought it was well thought through and interesting, not necessarily that I hope that this is what happens. Although, something is going to happen, and the reality could potentially be even worse. It is strange to me that despite the fact that women should have more power, they seem to have less. The ending gets a little chaotic for an otherwise ordinary literary fiction, and it seems to come a bit out of nowhere. Maybe that’s just how situations like this happen. It just takes one secret for things to derail. I did actually like the unsettled happy ending, as it did seem to make sense and fit with this tragic story.