Olivia Cole

All at sea in Shanghai

Olivia Cole on the new novel from Tony Parsons

The conquering white male, guiltily plundering, seduced by exoticism and abundance but never quite sure that he’s not just the clueless foreigner being taken for a ride: so we have Tony Parson’s pugnacious hero Bill, clad in his designer suit. He is the ambitious corporate lawyer, billing for every hour he breathes, hoping to ‘make partner’ faster in Shanghai than in London but of course accidentally finding ‘partner’ instead in the form of the alarmingly beautiful but endearingly goofy Li Jin Jin, despite the existence of Becca and Holly, his picture-in-wallet perfect blonde family.

The half-enchanted Western writer, of course, treads a well-travelled road, but My Favourite Wife is a very knowing update. Disappointed by ‘the jewel box’ of the Shanghai skyline, Parsons has Becca, with her highlights tumbling into her Joseph Conrad, hankering after ‘the first sigh of the East on my face’. With a touch of J. G. Ballard, it’s set in a modern-day, opulent high-rise, Paradise Mansions, full of ex-pat families and ‘permanent girlfriends’, young and not so young lovers installed into a life of lonely luxury by wealthy businessmen.

As well as the tragi-comic triangle, the novel is driven by a journalist’s sense of the story. The ease with which Bill can line himself up a potential ‘second wife’ in a gilded condo is all a bit embarrassing — as shaming as the billions his firm makes representing the ethically dubious interests of massive Western companies. Like the tourists wondering if they ever get to see the real China, his hero is always the first to wonder at the validity of the plot. Is Jin Jin just a girl with distractingly good looks and no prospects and, at moments of high drama, a comic problem with tenses? Unwittingly accurate, she ‘loves him all the time’ she once tells him.

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