Through hypnotherapy, the story that is haunting CC emerges, and she tells of her life 800 years ago as Mei Lan, a book-loving daughter of privilege. In that time, Mei Lan's greatest happiness comes from her forbidden friendship with Ah Li, the gardener's assistant, but both know it is a fragile relationship. Mei Lan's stepmother schemes to make for her the most advantageous match possible--and Mei Lan is miserable at the prospect. And Ah Li is trapped as well--he is a brilliant artist, whose work has come to the attention of the emperor himself. And now the emperor wants to add him to his menagerie of artists, all of whom are eunuchs.In his greatest painting, Ah Li had captured a perfect day the two had stolen along the river at the Qing Ming Festival. And it is at the same river where their lives will hang in the balance, when they chose to cast off the places their society has prepared for them...or not.
Mei Lan's story is a fascinating piece of historical fiction. It falls into the "spirited girl rejecting cultural norms in favor of a more 21st century outlook on life" sub-genre, but the interest provided by the characters and their time and place helped me suspend disbelief in that regard. Those who like their YA historical fiction with a generous dash of forbidden romance should enjoy this book just fine. It's full of detail, and color, and the sort of lively small happenings that bring the past to life.
However, the subtitle of the book "a Chinese Cinderella Story" is misleading. Adeline Yen Mah is the author of a YA memoir, Chinese Cinderella, and the CC of this book is that autobiographical self, having a fictional adventure. There's a stepmother, a minor glass slipper parallel with foot binding, and a romance, but it's not enough to make this a re-telling of the Cinderella story. So those looking specifically for fairy tale stories might find their expectations unmet.
It is not at all clear to me why the author felt it necessary to include CC at all. There's an earlier book about CC's adventures in WW II-- Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society (which sounds quite fun), but in this book, CC's little bit of story serves only as a framing device, and isn't connected in any obvious way with the events of the Song Dynasty era. Mei Lan's narrative could easily have been a stand-alone story. Conversely, Mei Lan's life reverberates in CC's mind, but very little page time is actually given to CC--she never gets to have a real story of her own. She doesn't actually travel through time, or have her life changed by remembering Mei Lan, and so her presence in the books seems kind of pointless to me.
So in essence, Along the River doesn't read as a time-travel book, let alone a fantasy, but it does contain a perfectly reasonable YA historical fiction book inside itself. And now I'm slightly conflicted--I guess I'll label this post time travel, fantasy, and fairy tale retelling (because people might well think it is these), even though I've just said it isn't (unless remembering past lives through hypnosis is fantasy?).
Incidentally, the book came out in the UK last year, entitled Chinese Cinderella--the Mystery of the Song Dynasty Painting, and I don't think the Chinese Cinderella part adds much to that title either.
(ARC received at ALA)