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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Concise Chinese-English
Dictionary for Lovers

Guo Xiaolu

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

Title: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Author: Guo Xiaolu
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007
Length: 283 pages
Availability: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers - US
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers - UK
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers - Canada
Petit Dictionnaire chinois-anglais pour amants - France
Kleines Wörterbuch für Liebende - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B : has some appeal, but not entirely successful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly A 31/8/2007 Hannah Tucker
Financial Times B- 20/1/2007 Rosie Blau
The Guardian A- 27/1/2007 Ursula K. Le Guin
The LA Times . 23/9/2007 Susan Salter Reynolds
The Observer B- 11/2/2007 Carole Cadwalladr
San Francisco Chronicle A 23/9/2007 Terry Hong
The Spectator C- 15/2/2007 Jonathan Mirsky
Sunday Times . 11/2/2007 Sophie Harrison
TLS B+ 23/2/2007 Simon Baker
USA Today . 19/9/2007 Jacqueline Blais

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though many are quite taken by it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(S)martly absorbing." - Hannah Tucker, Entertainment Weekly

  • "In the end, however, this book does not convince. All novels reflect the disjunction between what we do, what we say and what we think; the idea that no two people can tell the same story. Stranger-in-a-strange land is not a new theme in fiction. But The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers relies too much on this single idea; there is little subtlety and nuance. The pidgin English isn't hard to read, but it does keep the writing excessively simple. The novel works best -- and is at its most original -- where Guo brings her own China to the story. (…) The emotions she conveys are universal: love, grief, loneliness. But Guo's characters are too slight" - Rosie Blau, Financial Times

  • "It is also, of course, about language, and translation, and the immense difference between thinking in Chinese and thinking in English, and being Chinese and being English, and about what can and cannot be understood between even the tenderest lovers. (…) A lot of this is funny and charming (…..) A lot of it is subtle and gently troubling (…..) The novel, though, is also more than a love story; its psychology is politically acute, and things noted lightly in it linger in the mind. It succeeds in luring the western reader into an alien way of thinking: a trick only novels can pull off, and indeed one of their finest tricks. The only element in it that rang a little false to me was the frequent reference to films." - Ursula K. Le Guin, The Guardian

  • "Zhuang's voice is funny, childlike and wise all at once. Her English improves as the novel and the relationship progress, but it is still, in the end, only language." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The conceit of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is that it's a textbook or a primer and that is its greatest problem, too. There's too much tell and not enough show. (…) They're lovely, these almost accidental observations that interrupt the setpieces on language and difference, and when Z has been allowed to throw off the faux-naivety of the early chapters, she comes much more fully to life. (…) There's a poignant and moving novel here, perhaps; I just didn't quite get it." - Carole Cadwalladr, The Observer

  • "Z proves a keen observer of life in the West. (…) While Dictionary initially seems a fast, breezy read, don't be so easily entertained as to miss the many nuances. Just like the single-word entry markers, beyond the most obvious definitions are deeper, more satisfying meanings." - Terry Hong, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Slight. A slight story, slightly poignant, slightly drawn characters, occasionally slightly funny. It also has a grating aspect that is not slight: its language." - Jonathan Mirsky, The Spectator

  • "It is impossible not to be charmed by her matter-of-factness. As the story grows in complexity with Z’s growing vocabulary -- the narration acquires fluency and tenses almost imperceptibly -- it is equally hard not to be impressed by Guo’s vivacious talent." - Sophie Harrison, Sunday Times

  • "It is principally a romantic comedy whose humour and drama derive from cultural differences between the prim, direct Z and her Western boyfriend, and it is a superior example of the genre for a number of reasons. First, Xiaolu Guo writes bad English very well, though the authenticity of the voice is marred by flashes of quirky lyricism which betray the novelist's presence. The main reason for the novel's success lies in the portrayal of the characters, particularly that of the man. (…) Not everything is successful here. (…) (S)ome of the episodes in the novel seem guided (and occasionally sped along) by the author rather than by the course of events. However, if these prevent A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers from being an excellent novel, the many qualities on offer make it none the less a good and carefully considered one." - Simon Baker, Times Literary Supplement

  • "What makes this novel winsome is hearing the authentic voice of a young woman -- bewildered, self-deprecating, funny, wise -- as she navigates the world on her own." - Jacqueline Blais, USA Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Guo Xiaolu's first books were written in Chinese, but she wrote A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers in English. She chose, however, to present the story as the first-person narrative of a young Chinese woman, writing about the year she spent in England in order to learn English. The narrator's command of the language improves over the course of the novel, but even at the end much of it isn't 'correct'.
       A 'handwritten' note at the beginning of the novel apologises/states: "Sorry of my English", but it's the sorriness of her English that is central to the novel. The book is divided into the months of her stay (with a last one as a sort of epilogue, looking back as well as revealing what has become of the character), and then further divided into short chapters, almost all prefaced by a word and its dictionary-definition -- the theme, more or less, of that chapter. Sentences and paragraphs are generally short, and things move along very quickly. The text is meant to reflect her increasing familiarity with English, but that's difficult to pull off: Guo has her narrator's vocabulary and grammar improve over the course of the novel, but mainly it's the longer and more complex (even if often still error-filled) sentences that are meant to show that she is gaining command over the language. It's not entirely convincing: fluency here seems to mean more smooth, fluent (and longer) sentences more than anything else.
       The narrator is Zhuang Xiao Qiao; apparently this name is too difficult for the English to deal with, so she simply goes by 'Z'. She is in her early twenties, the daughter of a family that until recently were just farmers but then went into shoe-making and have, in a short time, achieved phenomenal success, becoming the employers of all their neighbours -- and wealthy enough to send their daughter to England to learn the language.
       Much of her account is of the confusion that arises from the differences between London and provincial China, as well as English and Chinese. More than anything, she relies on her little Concise Chinese-English Dictionary -- but, of course, that can only get her so far. Literal translation -- looking up the words -- may give her a general idea, but, as she learns, often doesn't help explain what's actually meant.
        Z is fairly open to new things -- even if somewhat set in her ways and understanding. She's scared, but also glad to be having this adventure, hardly missing her family and certainly not her "boring little hometown". She's also willing to jump at most every opportunity or possibility, quickly finding a man, for example -- though it's her literalism that moves that along faster than one might otherwise have expected. She barely knows the guy when she mentions:

     "I want to see where you live," I say.
     You look in my eyes. "Be my guest."
       She immediately takes that as an invitation to move in; conveniently, the man she's fallen for doesn't mind. It's an odd duck she winds up with: he wants to be a sculptor but has to work as a delivery-man to make ends meet. He's a vegetarian -- something Z can't comprehend at all --, bisexual, and really, really unwilling to commit. His ideal is to become a monk, but he can't even commit to that.
       Their food-issues are as good a metaphor for their relationship as anything else: ravenous Z constantly and desperately wants substantial food, especially meat (recalling how she essentially never got any in childhood), but all he offers her is this simple vegeterian fare, enough to get by on, but with little flavour or ... meat to it.
       A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is a love-story, but part of the problem of the book is that they make such an odd and ultimately unconvincing pair. There seems little chance that he will give her practically any of the many things she wants, and his laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes attitude clashes with her ambition. She wants a normal family, money, possessions, and these are all things that don't particularly interest him. There's also that age-difference -- she's twenty-four, he's twenty years older. And he doesn't even seem that passionate about her, sending her off to tour Europe by herself, for example. Their relationship seems to be the result of happenstance, Z literally jumping into bed with the first man she meets and then sticking with him because neither of them can be bothered to look for a more suitable mate (with him also frequently noting that he probably prefers the solitary life).
       A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers isn't a coming-of-age novel, but Z does have some catching up to do -- and she'll admit by the end that England is "the country where I became an adult". Life in China wasn't completely cloistered, but she has not been exposed to very much. Among the major discoveries she makes in England is sex. Her experience with the man she moves in with is her first, and lust becomes an issue for her quite often too, as she just begins to learn all its potential, as well as the need to control it.
       Language -- English and, to some extent, Chinese -- is central to the novel, and Guo does some clever things with it. Even when it's a bit obvious, these are some of the more effective parts of the novel -- as when Z writes:
     I don't like plural because they not stable. I don't like nouns too, as they change all the time like verbs. I only like adjectives, and adverbs. They don't change. If I can, I will only speak adjectives and adverbs.
       While she says she doesn't miss home much, she does miss being able to express herself in her language. All her other frustrations -- frequently not directly acknowledged -- are, in fact, reflected in her frustration with English: there the different world she finds herself in feels most obviously foreign, often literally incomprehensible. The comforts of Chinese, of expressing oneself in a certain way, where language works differently, remain elusive here. So, for example, even at the end of her stay, she finds: "I am still no good at verbs, particularly future tense" -- and, of course, seeing what the future holds (and deciding which path to take) remains one of her major problems.
       Guo's approach has considerable appeal, and the language-issues are quite well done. But the story itself isn't nearly as compelling. Z's year flies by, and there's much that she doesn't reveal. There are hardly any other friends and acquaintances -- people, like words, are constantly tested out and then left behind. Among the few characters that appear at several points is Z's English-teacher, but it's only at their last meeting that the woman she has been calling 'Mrs.Margaret' tells Z that: "You should say Mrs. Wilkinson, or just Margaret" -- making clear that Z never really knew her at all, either. And while Z's passion/dependence on her odd lover is somewhat convincing, it's far from romantic.
       A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is a decent culture-clash novel, and its unusual perspective and story a more entertaining variation on the theme than most, but it doesn't go deep enough into any of these characters -- especially Z -- to be truly compelling. Of some interest, but not really a success.

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A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers: Reviews: Guo Xiaolu: Other books by Guo Xiaolu under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Chinese literature
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction
  • See Index of Travel-related books

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About the Author:

       Chinese-British author Guo Xiaolu (郭小橹) was born in 1973. She has published books written in both Chinese and English, and also directed several films.

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© 2007-2021 the complete review

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