I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
Aren't the illustrations of this book beautiful?
My two favorites, though, are when Minli walks the red silk rope bridge to the Never-Ending Mountain, and when she's sharing a dinner with the king in Clasping the Moon Pavilion:
And of course, there is the lovely cover.
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to find out that Grace Lin had illustrated this book herself. The writing style and story are exactly what you'd expect when you see the cover. An elegant fairy tale that takes you to the mythical world of what feels like a magical ancient China--a world where a girl can venture out of her home to find her fortune, where red silk strings represent paths of destiny, where a king disguises himself as a beggar and grows a peach tree from a wooden staff. And most importantly, where an old man with a giant book will answer any question asked once every 99 years--the main basis of the plot of our heroine's adventure.
Scattered throughout the book are stories-within-the-overall story, all of them resembling fairy tales, written in the same style the overall story is. I'm afraid that I've yet to discover any book quite like this one, so there are no comparisons to make. In any other novel, they'd serve as mere exposition. In this one, they serve multiple purposes: to lend depth to the setting, to foreshadow events to come, to link Minli's seemingly simple journey into the overarching moral worldview. Each one teaches a lesson, but sometimes those lessons aren't obvious and sometimes those lessons contain double meanings. Thus the novel leads you in a sort of full circle, leaving tantalizing clues along the way, then gradually piecing them together into a graceful, coherent whole.
There is an overarching message to this book, one about the dangers of greed and the importance of gratitude, which sounds deceptively simple. My 6th grade self kept pondering over what made this story ring so true, yet seemed to do it so subtly that I kept thinking I was imagining it. Little did I know that the reason for that confusion was because I was so used to other authors beating me over the head. I expected Grace Lin to beat me over the head too. But she never did, not even once. Reading this book, there's much the same feeling I get when I read Greek myths--the enjoyment comes from the ability to interpret a fascinating story that seems so far removed from real life in multiple ways. Not because it's confusing. Like the illustrations above, the prose is simple and striking and seemingly childlike, in order to effectively carry the tone of the story towards its target audience. The plot, again, has the feel of a fairy tale. An especially foreign one that embodies Chinese historical culture, but a Western reader with no familiarity will have no trouble absorbing it through this.
What attracted me, strangely enough, was the moralizing tale--like stated above, the theme of greed vs. gratitude. This element of the story shows itself in multiple ways. For the side of greed, we see this in Minli, who desires to search for the Old Man of the Moon to change her fortune. More strikingly we see this in Minli's mother, whose dissatisfaction with their present life is the main driving factor to Minli's departure from home, although Minli's sense of independence certainly plays a role. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Tiger Magistrate, a somewhat mythical character who is dead by the time of the story but someone we get acquainted with through the aforementioned mini-stories/fairy tales interspersed throughout the book, as a tyrannical authority with all the comforts in life who still will never have enough. Interestingly, greed is portrayed as a vice that spans across all social classes, although the topic of Minli and her family's poverty is certainly grappled with; no one can be truly happy when their entire livelihood depends on tilling perpetually unforgiving land, although Lin does suggest otherwise with a mini-story of a daughter who was content nonetheless. The story even extends this theme to non-human characters (which is not surprising considering that Lin drew inspiration from Chinese myths): there's a pretty hilarious scene with a bunch of greedy monkeys fighting over rice, and a more saddening one concerning a prickly dragon who only learned her lesson when her children turned themselves into rivers.
On the side of gratitude (and by extension, generosity), we also see this span across all social classes. The king who rules over the City of Bright Moonlight, whose sense of contentment leads him to be perfectly willing to gift Minli with a priceless treasure. The family of the Village of Moon Rain, each member of which rips off a little of their sleeves to patch into a jacket for their guest. The buffalo boy who is content with his simple life so long as he has his friend. The contrast of these characters with the more flawed ones stand out, but it is not a contrast of opposites. Rather, the story seems to be suggesting that when we are unhappy, sometimes it's more a matter of looking within rather than without ourselves; of searching for the truly important things in life and learning to appreciate them. Minli finds her fortune, but only after she realizes it never needed to change in the first place. So does her mother. Maybe the way I'm describing it sounds like a conveniently happy ending, but I personally saw it as a metaphorical reward for gratitude. The more you appreciate in life, the more happiness you will find. The grass is not always greener on the other side; in fact, it almost never is. The most powerful reminder we get of this is at (what I think is) the climax of the story, when Minli meets the Old Man of the Moon at last and recognizes the single word running up and down the page on the Book of Fortune echoing an almost-forgotten story earlier in the book:
I'm not usually given to liking moralizing tales. I gravitate toward flawed main characters, humanized villains and moral messages that are questioned and deconstructed, not straightforwardly given. This novel could be said to contain all three, but not in the way I expected. The book's message is one that you have to search for yourself, yet one that is always inevitably there. And sometimes I've come to realize that occasionally, I like being taught a lesson. I want to be told how to live my life and still be affirmed that the capacity for true happiness is something that I still have. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon does that, and in the most graceful and elegant possible way.