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Nicole Mones (Photo/Marion Ettlinger)

 

From The Asian Reporter, V14, #5 (January 27, 2004), page 11.

Enjoy a cup of Chinese art history

A Cup of Light

By Nicole Mones
Delacorte Press, 2002
Hardcover, 296 pages, $24.95

By Pamela Ellgen

When a young porcelain expert flies to China to evaluate a collection of artwork up for international sale, she lands in circumstances vastly different from what she expected. In Nicole Mones’ second novel, A Cup of Light, Lia Frank is on her own in learning the origin of a huge collection of tiny porcelain pots. Greed, deception, and political turbulence all hinder her efforts to discover the truth. In the midst of this quest, she longs for a relationship with more than inanimate pieces of art. A Cup of Light is descriptively detailed — sometimes too much so — but it is well worth reading and enjoying.

Mones weaves her own extensive knowledge of Chinese art and history into this novel. At pivotal points in the narrative, Lia Frank reverts from her current situation to recount intriguing historical dramas that help her understand the various porcelain pieces. One of these vignettes tells of emperor Xuantong, who discovers, after years of waiting for a child, that he in fact has a son. He commissions several potters to make a set of wine cups to honor his newfound child.

"Xuantong saw a hen-and-chicks motif, after the Song painter Huang Chuan. It was a supreme paternal symbol. And it echoed the design of a much more ancient ritual cup pictured in the Book of Rites. The cups, the chickens scratching in the dirt with their little babies all around, would invoke the love of a parent for his children, of an emperor for his subjects. They would be truly celestial."

Each of these historical tales further complicates Lia’s struggle between wanting to leave the artwork in China, where it originated, or emancipate it from the tangled web of Chinese artists, buyers, and dealers.

A Cup of Light is generous with detailed descriptions and historical narratives, so much so that some readers may find the book too slow. However, the background information on Chinese history, politics, and art gives the book greater depth and substance. The mental imagery brought to life throughout the novel makes it well worth reading.

Mones describes the scene of Lia’s first arrival in China,

"The shouts of vendors washed into the car, the roaring and gunning of vehicles, the bursts of recorded music from thrust-open doors. Character signs blinked and glowed in the night, advertising stores, restaurants, businesses; trees and awnings were festooned with light."

Some of the book’s greatest strengths lie in the author’s ability to create a fresh and original story without the encumbrance of formulaic plots and stock characters. Lia Frank’s quirks and idiosyncrasies lend to her a subtle charm. Some readers may identify with her fears of being known by others, which she masks by her passionate dedication to her job and her curiosity for the world of Chinese porcelain. Others may see themselves in the American porcelain buyer whose determination to amass more and more artwork is an expensive obsession.

While caught up in the extensive task of appraising hundreds of porcelain cups, Lia’s focus is distracted by a life-weathered doctor working in China on a medical research project. His warmth and understanding invade her guarded world. But when she finishes her work in China, a long plane ride awaits to take her back to the United States, away from him. Lia is not sure whether this is a welcome reprieve from the doctor’s attentions or an escape from what could have been love.

Mones’ informed perspective on Chinese culture gives substance to what is already an aesthetically brilliant piece of art in itself. Her characters’ journey through romance and relationships is equally exciting and beautiful. Like a cup of exquisite tea, A Cup of Light should be savored.

Nicole Mones will be in Portland on January 29 to present a special viewing of the Portland Art Museum’s exhibit of Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasty porcelains and give talk on "The World Behind Chinese Porcelain: Artists, Fakes, and the Fate of the Imperial Collection." The event will be held in the Stevens Room of the Portland Art Museum (1219 S.W. Park Avenue, Portland) at 6:00pm. For information, or to purchase tickets, call (503) 226-4536.

 

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