I chose Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge as one of my TBR Pile Challenge books this year because I'd bought a Capuchin Classics edition (pictured below) for next to nothing when Borders closed up a few years ago. Some of the members of my online book group had raved about Illyrian Spring, one of Bridge's later works, which I read and enjoyed very much. I was really looking forward to this one. However, this turned out to be another one of those books in which not much happens.
Ostensibly, it's a story set around 1930, about a bunch of European diplomats and hangers-on who take a weekend excursion from Peking (now known as Beijing) to a temple several miles away. Though it's entitled Peking Picnic, it's not at all how I've ever had a picnic -- that is, sitting on a blanket on the ground and eating from a basket, fighting off ants and wasps, then packing it all up and going home the same day. No, these people bring camp beds (what are these anyway?) and good china, loaded up on a bunch of donkeys by a bunch of servants who then serve them multiple fancy courses. I suppose it's closer to what we would call camping for rich people also known as glamping. I myself have never been on a picnic with multiple courses, such as the "broiled crayfish with Hollandaise. . . . grilled chicken a l'Americain (with Russian salad); and . . . macedoine of fruit with cream mousse, followed by coffee and liqueurs." I suppose it's closer to camping Downton Abbey style, if all the characters were diplomats stationed in China.
Anyway, there's really not a lot of action or plot in the book. The main character is Laura Leroy, wife of one of the diplomats stationed in Peking. One of her friends organizes a weekend excursion, which may or may not be cancelled because of a possible military coup. Included in the party are her two nieces who are visiting from England, various young diplomats who may be falling in love with said nieces, and various wives and people from the diplomatic corps. Basically, Mrs. Leroy does a lot of thinking and making sage pronouncements with people who are falling in and out of love.
For three quarters of the book, hardly anything happens, though the writing is mostly beautiful. Here's a description of a temple the party visits:
The whole temple is full of the light gentle voice of water; the formality of stone and shrine and symbol is made gay with its shining freedom, brought in, like the blossoming tree, to worship within the holy places. The Chinese do deeply love and honor the things of nature -- air, water, flowers and trees -- more deeply than almost any other people.
Ann Bridge really captures the sense of place. I've actually been to Beijing, and though it was about eighty years after the book is set, I can still get a glimpse of what it must have been like back in the 1920s and 1930s.
Eventually, the party does come into conflict with Chinese bandits who are associated with one of the warlords who might be planning some kind of takeover -- the same warlords who initially put a damper on the excursion, to the chagrin of the hostess. From this point, there's a lot happening in the story, though it does take more than 200 pages to get there.
This book does give some insight to the viewpoint of British colonials of the period, who were unbelievably racist, and according to this book, completely obtuse. If the biggest problem they have is that fighting warlords might interrupt your party plans, there's something a little bit wrong here. I mostly liked the book, despite the slow pace, though I was really put off by the racism exhibited by the British regarding the Chinese and other Asian races -- there are a couple of condescending cracks about Filipinos as well. So -- overall, a fairly interesting though slow read, and I've now finished seven of the twelve books on my TBR Pile Challenge, so I'm on track.