This is not a common novel. Not at all. In fact, it’s a kind of dictionary and, at the same time, travel diary. And although the title may suggest that this is a love story, something more complicated is hidden behind this broad label. Love is certainly central to this novel but love is mainly the way the protagonist (a Chinese young woman living in London for a year as an English student) grows up and becomes an adult, learns a new language, and gradually understands a new world, a new country, a new people.
Love and language are closely related as language is fundamental to understand others and love is the necessary condition to be willing to communicate with others. However, even when language is more or less shared, there come cultural differences. So, even love, a concept that many consider to be universal, shows new sides:
‘Love’, this English word: like other English words it has a tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these specific tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love … has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.
If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last for ever. It will be infinite.
Yet, there aren’t only language and tense barriers but also physical and geographical barriers so that East and West seems incapable of meeting fully.
The contrast between East and West (and their different ways of thinking of love and life) turns easily into the contrast between man and woman: it’s not just the Oriental mind striving to understand the Western mind, it’s also a woman trying to put herself in her lover’s shoes. I would say she manages in the end but at the price of letting him go. Nevertheless, what matters is that she’s found her way into life and a grown-up identity. What characterizes it is a mixture of East and West so that if these two fail to meet within the lovers’ intimate space, they do encounter in the fashioning of the protagonist’s identity.
So maybe this is why this story is not only about love – although at some point this is the strong impression the reader gets. At first, I didn’t like it but then I realized that love in this story is more than love between man and woman: it’s love between men and men, women and women, it’s family love, the love for your country and the country you’re staying in, your mother-tongue and the language you’re learning, your way of living and thinking and a complete new one. It’s that kind of love that makes you learn new words and worlds.