SPOILER ALERT: the opening page of King’s ingenious novel — a scene involving the marriage negotiation between two Chinese families — is so head-spinning you need to read it twice, even a third time. It’s not so much a double-take as a triple-take. Honestly? It seems almost unfair to spoil the pleasure of surprise by writing a review. But I will (though you could stop here).
The setting is China in the not-too-distant future when, decades after abandoning its One-Child per couple policy, the country finds itself with 40 million excess men. Given the cultural preference for sons over daughters, it’s not surprising that too many couples made certain their only child would be a male.
This part of the story is true, by the way. It is AN EXCESS MALE’s project to imagine a future society that must channel all that loose testosterone — through strict, government regulation — into exhausting fitness programs, legalized-sex “Helpmates,” and para-military game playing. Most important, Chinese women would be encouraged to take two husbands.
So back to that opening matchmaking scene. Wei-Guo sits across the table from May-ling, utterly infatuated. He is a handsome, highly eligible bachelor, who has spent years saving up for an adequate dowry. (Yes, the tables are turned — it is the man who who must pay the woman’s family.) At 44, Wei-Guo wants to marry and to father a child, and the lovely young woman across the table may be his best chance.
Except that…the families of the two don’t appear all that enamored of one another, and as the book progresses, Wei-Gou realizes something is off kilter with May-ling’s family. Rumor has it they may be skirting, even breaking, laws, and marrying into such a family could prove risky. Yet despite his family’s objections, Wei-Gou is stubbornly, desperately attracted to May-ling.
But neither does May-ling’s family particularly trust Wei-Gou, leading both families to wonder: who’s duping whom? Eventually, after some humorous “Spy vs. Spy” shenanigans, attitudes begin to shift: unlikely friendships develop and improbable heroes emerge.
What Maggie Shen King does so skillfully — with a light, deft, even comedic, touch — is to limn the human heart, with all its unruly urges and desires. She captures the vagaries of life, how easily one can veer off the “correct” path, risking reprisals by a chillingly repressive state.
The best part of An Exccess Male happens to be its characters, who grow and change, who are lovable, sometimes irascible — but who surprise us with their innate kindness. The end features an action/suspense subplot which, sadly, feels like a need to ramp up the tension for entertainment value. But that’s a pretty minor quibble … because I was turning pages as eagerly as the next.
An Excess Male is a winner — a romance, captivating family drama, and sobering view of totalitarian power. Highly recommended.
Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.