February Flowers is the debut novel of Fan Wu, who grew up in China but now lives in America (the book was written in English). It takes place at the university in Guengzhou (China) and focuses on Ming, a freshman, and her coming-of-age. Ming comes from one of the provinces, and she worked hard in order to get into such a prestigious university. She always has her nose buried in a book and doesn't really know much about life outside of novels. As she slowly adjusts to university life with her three roommates and literature classes, she still resists joining in a social life. The roof of her dorm becomes her refuge, her place to go and play the violin when her roommates are playing cards or having a party. Then one day she meets Miao Yan, a world-wise twenty-four-year-old junior, and she begins to grow up, almost against her will.
Wu perfectly captures that odd stage of life when a girl begins to become a woman. Ming is very naive when she arrives at college, and she soon develops a bit of a girl crush on Yan. Wu makes it perfectly believable: while Ming enjoys having such a close friend, she also wonders where the boundary is, and at one point she worries if she might be a lesbian. Meanwhile, Yan is a party girl, and her lifestyle makes Ming question her own beliefs about sex, alcohol, and more. However, Ming's essential personality doesn't change: she remains herself, while she enjoys talking with Yan. When Yan tries to get her to dress sexy, Ming refuses. All of this also rings true - people don't change overnight. Meanwhile, Ming begins to learn more about Yan's history, and why she's become the kind of person that she is. What I found best about this is that Fan Wu trusts the reader: she doesn't always lay everything out, and she doesn't always make Yan-or even Ming-completely trustworthy. It's up to the reader to read between the lines.
While Fan Wu's characterization is dead on, her writing style is quite sparse. On her website, she states that she wrote in English to help learn the language, and it shows. Much of the writing feels like something you'd see in a learning English class. This is a problem, since the narrator Ming is supposed to have a degree in literature and be widely read. Usually well-read people tend to write expressively and with a fairly large vocabulary. The sparse language detracts from Ming's voice, and thus from the book as a whole. It prevents this from being a five-star book.
Nevertheless, this is a poignant story that captures the confusion of college, especially that first year. The main story is bookended by Ming as a thirty-something-year-old looking back, which helps give the narrative more structure. The plot itself is pretty meandering; this book is much more focused on character than plot. One of the real treats is the flavor of China that pervades throughout; the reader really feels dropped into Chinese university life. It helps tremendously that Ming is from a different province; it makes her notice of various things in Guengzhou seem natural, instead of forced.
All in all, this book provides unforgettable characters (even the minor characters are strongly sketched) and an intimate introduction to a foreign place. While Fan Wu's writing style needs improvement, for a debut novel she shows considerable skill. Her second novel will probably be even more compelling.