Pavilion of Women is a novel by Pearl S. Buck.
The protagonist is Madam Wu, an aristocratic Chinese lady at the head of a large and influential family. Her husband is a self-indulgent but well-meaning man she twists around her little finger and her aged mother-in-law was long ago relegated to an honorable retirement. Madam is regarded by all, including herself, as an ideal woman; beautiful, dutiful, fruitful and accomplished. She believes herself to be a model wife who loves her husband, a good and affectionate mother to her sons and a just and impartial mistress to her many servants. The 'just and impartial' is true enough but in fact Madam Wu is an arrogant, self-centered woman who loves nobody. Her self-realization and evolution into a warmer, better, genuinely good woman is the theme of the novel.
The plot kicks off with Madam Wu's long planned for fortieth birthday which she uses as an excuse to finally detach herself completely from the burdensome responsibility for a family she does not love. Her detachment from her husband requires the purchase of a concubine, a healthy peasant raised girl Madam names Ch'iuming. Unfortunately the new concubine and Madam's third son Fengmo accidentally catch a glimpse of each other and Madam decides to head off any scandalous results by quickly marrying Fengmo off to the young daughter of her friend Madam Kang.
However Linyi is a modern young woman who has been to a Western school and wants a husband who can speak a Western language thus Madam Wu comes to invite a European priest, Brother Andre, into her home to teach her son. To make sure he does not not teach Fengmo anything she would disapprove of Madam sits in on their lessons and soon Andre is teaching both mother and son much more than mere languages. Under Andre's influence Madam Wu finds herself doing astonishing and unconventional things like sending her third son abroad to study, inviting a concubine chosen by her husband not herself into their home, taking her unloved second daughter-in-law under her wing and plunging to her elbows into the blood and mess of a difficult childbirth to save the life of her friend Madam Kang.
This work contains examples of:
- Age-Gap Romance:
- Mr. Wu is forty-five and his love interest Ch'iuming is eighteen, but it doesn't work.
- Mr. Wu's relationship with a very young but experienced girl from a 'Flower House' turns out happily. Not only is he genuinely in love with her, she is in love with him, and a little frightened by her emotions.
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: Second son Tsemo and his self chosen wife Rulan have this in spades - and it is ruining their marriage.
- Big, Screwed-Up Family: What Madam Wu's got - and it's mostly her fault.
- Defrosting the Ice Queen: the book is all about the process of defrosting Madam Wu.
- Doorstop Baby: Ch'iuming's backstory includes being abandoned by her parents, an unfortunate Chinese custom; she is adopted by an old woman as a future bride for her son but the boy dies young, leaving the bitter foster mother ready and willing to sell Ch'iuming as a concubine.
- Double In-Law Marriage: Liangmo and Meng have done so well together that Madam suggests to her friend Mrs. Kang that they ship younger siblings Fengmo and Linyi which doesn't work out nearly as well.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Madam Wu has to do some pretty heavy lifting to fix the mess she's made through her selfish arrogance but it's worth it.
- Ice Queen: Madam Wu is not overtly 'icy' but her emotional detachment from even those supposedly closest to her allows her to manipulate them quite effectively - for their own good of course.
- Love Redeems: Guess what trigger's Madam's HeelFace Turn.
- Manipulative Bastard: Madam is so this before her HeelFace Turn.
- Marry for Love: Madam is more than annoyed when her second son comes home from Shanghai with a 'modern' wife chosen for love. The marriage does not turn out well.
- Men Are Childish: Madam sincerely believes that all you have to do to make a man happy is to keep his stomach full, and his bed, until Brother Andre calls her on it.
- Multigenerational Household: The household Madam rules includes her husband's mother, her four sons, the wives of the two eldest, and a grandchild. There are also a number of cousins from collateral lines.
- Orphan's Plot Trinket: Ch'iuming's is a woman's coat of faded red satin. She was found wrapped in it.
- Parenting the Husband: Madam has spent the last twenty years doing this to Mr. Wu.
- Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Madam Wu thinks she has one of these - and is shocked to discover just how wrong she is. On the other hand her son Liangmo and his wife Meng really are perfect for each other and extremely happy.
- Silk Hiding Steel: Madam Wu again. Her physical beauty is constantly described along with her gentle voice, her elegant manners and her enigmatic concealing smile all disguising a strength that is self-evident to the reader.
- Spirit Advisor: The memory of her father-in-law, Old Gentleman, is this to Madam Wu in the beginning of the book; he is succeeded by Brother Andre
- Unwanted Spouse:
- Poor Ch'iuming.
- Fengmo finds out - too late - that he does not want Linyi but fortunately for her he recognizes his responsibility to her and works to be a decent husband and make her as happy as possible.