Book Review: Falling Leaves – The True Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter


falling leaves book cover
courtesy of


(contains spoiler alerts)

I am reading a lot about China lately, in preparation for my trip to Beijing in March. Adeline Yen Mah’s memoir tells the story of her growing up in Shanghai and Hong Kong. Her mother died in giving birth to her, the fifth child. Adeline’s father remarried to a stereotypical wicked, petty and domineering stepmother. Her stepmother had two more children that were favored. Adeline was neglected and barely tolerated, spending years in a Catholic boarding school, before being sent to England. She made a successful life for herself and finished medical school there and eventually having a successful practice in California. The stories of the relationships with her four siblings, parents, aunts, nephews, etc. over the years was engrossing. Now that I have reached an age that I can look back on the choices I have made, I see consequences of choices. The members of her family are very cruel and cold-hearted to each other often. She suffered a lot of abuse and you can see the effects on her as she goes through her life. Having a safe and happy start in life is so important for children.

The setting of the book is pre-World War II in China. The slow takeover of the country by the communists was devastating for millions of people. Many escaped to Hong Kong, like her family, but other stayed, thinking that things would be OK. How wrong they were! The book ends in the 1990s, so it is truly an epic tale of a family. Adeline overcame a lot in her life. Besides a tough childhood, she went experienced racism, sexism and a tough divorce. Through it all, she remained dignified and true to herself. I also was touched by her relationship with her aunt and the strong nostalgia of childhood. I get that feeling when I return my home village of Caspian, Michigan. She felt the same in the streets of Shanghai. A childhood that seems so far away from where I am today. Mine was so much happier than hers of course, but she had good moments too.

If you want to get a better sense of China and a good family generational story, I highly recommend this book.

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