It is 1914 in Peking, China, and eight-year-old princess Eastern Jewel has just been shipped off from her household and sent to live with her father’s relatives in Japan and renamed Yoshiko Kawashima. She quickly begins to feel a part of this family, and falls in love with the beautiful country of Japan. When she is married off to a Mongolian prince, she quickly becomes fearful of the icy cold temperatures and the loneliness that overcomes her in this sad country, so she escapes her new husband and makes her way back to Peking, this time as a spy for the Japanese secret service. Her life is finally as she wants it – she is an independent woman, rich, and working for the country she so loves – but loneliness still plagues her and eventually, she may have to pay a steep price for her years of independence.
I have to come right out and say it: I did not like this book very much. There were aspects of it I enjoyed, but overall I was less than impressed. First of all, there was a lot of sex in The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel. I mean a LOT. Like, every couple of pages. I am not a prude by any means, and I can appreciate sex scenes when they are appropriate in the situation of the book and written well. I don’t even mind the inappropriate ones, usually, but in this book it was very much overkill. The abundance of sex took away from the experience of reading the novel, for me. It was just too much, and at a certain point I just felt like I understood that this woman has a lot of sex, but do I really need to read about every single encounter? I’d rather not, thank you. So that was one of my biggest issues with the book.
Another issue I had was the format of the novel itself. I think that it could have been MUCH improved by more dialogue, more interactions between the characters. As it was, Eastern Jewel/Yoshiko basically talked to the reader throughout the entire book, describing her life, and while it was interesting, it could have been extremely engaging, and much more gripping than it was. I mean, this woman is beyond fascinating. She had experiences that no Asian woman at the time was able to have. She had responsibilities and a career that were so rare for a woman to have, in any country, in that time period. So the story could have been much, much better than it was. Had it been written differently, in a different style perhaps, it had the potential to be another Nefertiti or The Other Boleyn Girl type book – historical fiction that is so captivating and compelling that you simply can’t put the book down. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t the case here.
All that being said, I was fascinated by Eastern Jewel/Yoshiko’s story. She really did live such an exciting life, and I enjoyed reading about her various escapades and daring way of living. She was cast aside by her own family, and instead of wallowing in her grief over it, she made herself a part of her new family. She loved and lost several men, and she just kept on with the knowledge that the only person who would ever truly take care of her and love her completely was herself. This is a lesson I still haven’t learned, and reading about a woman who embodied that spirit definitely inspired me to take better care of myself and to appreciate the wonderful person that I am.
Overall, the novel made me sort of sad for its lost potential. The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel could have been amazing, but it was only okay. I would only recommend this book for historical fiction enthusiasts who can tolerate a heavy amount of sex in their reading. If this does not describe you, I’d probably skip it.