There's a lovely detail toward the end of Duncan Jepson's debut novel, "All the Flowers in Shanghai" (Morrow, 302 pages, $14.99). Our female (anti)heroine, Feng, divested of possessions by the Cultural Revolution, has taken up as a seamstress in a small-town factory. Producing plain uniforms for the Party, she manages to convey slight individuality: "They were only small transgressions, amid all the endless repetition, but sometimes we embroidered special patterns for people, their initials, or even small flowers, concealed inside cuffs and hems."
Unexpected details make stories and life more interesting. In this sweeping saga beginning in 1930s Shanghai, the atmospheric details are varied, textured and fine as an intricate cheongsam (dress). But so rich is this world that the set design at times feels more alive than the characters. In vivid descriptions, Jepson beautifully highlights the very excesses Chairman Mao would later rise up against: decadent meals, opulent homes, sprawling gardens, luxurious dress and excruciating adherence to custom. Arranged objects on a shelf take on iconic significance.
In a page-turning story spanning three decades, Feng comes to stand in for 20th-century Chinese history -- transforming from a naïve girl to the privileged wife of a wealthy Shanghai businessman, and then to the disillusioned party worker mourning her life's mistakes. Deep remorse suffuses the story with an elegiac tone, the narrative addressed to Feng's displaced daughter, disposed of due to intense pressure from her husband's family to produce a male heir. Certain tragedies, the story regretfully concedes, remain timely to this day.
The problem with these representative characters -- the traditional in-laws, the noble peasant, the breadwinner husband, but most of all Feng herself -- is that while their struggles are powerful and their suffering all too real, they can also feel like stock types, built up by the author only to be knocked down by the flows of history. In reflections that are perhaps too aware of the zeitgeist, emotion is summarized rather than felt. (One character remarks, "Maybe they're right, we Chinese have seen so many killed and lost so many children that we think them replaceable.") In the face of personal and political upheaval, Feng's myriad travails resulting from her class and gender are rendered as more melodramatic than artful.
The language is uneven. Certain syntactical idioms are distracting ("to give face" means to show respect), while other moments are poetic and understated, "There was a light rain falling and the dark marble of the courtyard glistened like wet leather."
Ultimately, the story succeeds at achieving a cinematic realism (which makes sense, as Jepson is also an accomplished filmmaker), and spinning a ripping yarn that transcends time and place. But a plot-driven narrative dampens the resonance of the characters' plight.
Jackie Reitzes is a writer and editor in Manhattan.