"110 Shanghai Road" is a post-"Dynasty" historical romance. Which is to say it abounds in raunchy sex, proceeds via moves and countermoves aimed at controlling a stupendous fortune and sports a self-teasing tone. The novel also includes cameo appearances by dozens of historical notables -- from Alice Roosevelt Longworth to Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) -- and whets the appetite for facts sufficiently to send the conscientious reader to the library.
True to its title, "110 Shanghai Road" is set mainly in China. Beginning in 1926 and ending in 1983, it chronicles the Chinese upheaval as lived by a cluster of characters, mostly Americans and -- by way of marriage, bastardy and incest -- mostly interrelated. The principals are Matthew Granger, son of a pious Presbyterian minister; Harley Fitch III, son of an unscrupulous trader; and Jordan Logan Fisher, daughter of a British diplomat. From an early age, the two males are rivals. Despite his modest background, Matthew exudes the self-assurance Harley can never muster. And Matthew wins Jordan.
On the night the two become engaged, Harley's envy runs amok. He rapes Jordan, whom Matthew is about to leave for a stint at Oxford. When the Japanese invade China later that year, the shame of her pregnancy impels Jordan to stay there instead of fleeing with the other westerners. She joins the leftist underground, marries Chuen-yup, the rebellious son of a warlord, and blends as best she can into the stripped-down world of a Maoist peasant: eschewing any attempt to look beautiful, working long and numbing hours, becoming adept at Chinese invective. An artist, she also becomes the quasi-official sketcher of the communists.
Meanwhile, Harley is busy amassing one of the world's great fortunes and committing incest with a minor movie star named Tai-ling, his father's daughter by a Chinese mistress. Matthew's knowledge of Mandarin lands him an introduction to President Roosevelt and a mission to China as a special envoy. Meeting both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, he has little doubt that the future belongs to the pure revolutionary rather than the corrupt capitalist.
Back home his reports to that effect are not well received, especially by anti-Communist fanatics poising themselves to conduct witch hunts. Eventually, prompted by none other than Harley Fitch, Sen. Joe McCarthy brands Matthew a traitor and drives him into exile in China.
Matthew leaves behind him not only his country but a wife (a U.S. senator's daughter) and two children. Yet despite the upheavals that have separated them, he has never stopped loving Jordan, and the novel's crucial questions are whether the two will meet again and, if so, whether they can pick up where they left off. Their first encounter is not promising. When Matthew calls her Jordan, she reacts hatefully: "The woman's lips drew back in a sneer. With both hands she twisted her hair into a mass of unruly knots. 'My name is Bah-wha, mission worm, and don't you ever forget it!' "
This is a plot-heavy book, and I barely have space to mention that Jordan is designated a Dame Commander of the British Empire for her artistic achievement or that Matthew, at first merely a gentleman farmer, wins the Nobel Prize for his development of a miracle grain. I'll also have to slough over the extraordinary developments that culminate when young Paul Granger and young Andrew Fitch become lovers.
I'm rushing because I want to linger a bit over those cameo appearances. There is Princess Alice in the receiving line after Matthew's wedding at the Washington Cathedral. "I always say," she quips, "that if you can't be married out of the White House, God's little hovel here is the next best thing." There is Mao receiving a beating by flashlight from his first wife. "Within weeks he switched allegiance to Jiang Qing, the young Shanghai film actress." There is Jiang Qing herself, forced to surmount her antiwestern animus in the face of Matthew's agronomic success: " 'Behold!' she proclaimed, pointing to the fields about her. 'The sweet green breast of Mother China, which suckles even the dwarfed atrocities of Western birth and turns their twisted limbs and sickly thoughts into something comparable to our own men of merit!' "
"110 Shanghai Road" contains a great deal more intelligence and e'lan than most historical sagas, but then it should. Monica Highland is actually a trio of collaborators: novelist and critic Carolyn See; journalist Lisa See Kendall, her daughter; and John Espey, novelist and old China Hand. Although the authors might try fleshing out their characters more -- Harley Fitch in particular is little more than spite on loan from a morality play -- on the whole their amalgamated talents do justice to their rich material.
The reviewer is a Washington writer and editor.