The Price of Eggs in China by Don Lee – Review

Don Lee seems to work in triangles.  Dean makes chairs and is dating a former poet, Caroline Yip, when another poet, Marcella Ahn, moves into the neighborhood and throws everything into chaos. Caroline believes Marcella has tracked her down and moved into the same town just to make her life miserable. From Marcella’s hiring Dean to construct a chair for her, Caroline weaves a tapestry of evil and intrigue. Dean’s own misery and desire for the whole thing to come to some sort of end, to be allowed to go back to the life he was leading before, pushes him to set fire to his stock of wood and try to frame Marcella for it. When the short story wraps up, however, we are left to wonder if perhaps Caroline hadn’t been at least partially correct all along.

Early in the story, it is revealed that Caroline had published a book of poetry at around the same time as Marcella, and had been met by much different criticism. Where Marcella was praised, Caroline was pilloried and, oddly, neither had published anything since. While I’m not sure it can be said that Caroline was happy waitressing, she seemed to have possibly resided herself to the life. For some reason, the reappearance of Marcella, and Caroline’s seeming “victory” over her in driving her from Rosarita Bay, re-energized Caroline’s writing.

Dean just seems to go on, quietly making his chairs, making some money, and wanting to live quietly. We find out he was a rather celebrated artist at one point who garnered a fair bit of fame and is actually quite wealthier and well known than he lets on. His biggest beef seems to be with having to have customers at all, and not being allowed to simply make chairs without the worry of them having to fit anyone.

I wonder if there isn’t something here about the artistic process and how it is different between men and women. It seems the image of the male artist is fairly well formed at this point. While there is a natural bit of competition between all artists, is Lee saying men take it less personally, instead desiring to focus solely on their work rather than getting caught up in more personal, uglier confrontations? If so, what is he saying about the woman artist?

Beyond that, what are the motivations for each? Dean had found great critical and financial success and, effectively, wanted none of it. Meanwhile, Marcella enjoyed great critical success and dropped off the map to a certain degree while Caroline was less than successful and also fell off the map, but to a much greater degree.

Something else that stands out is the nature of obsession. Dean is pretty laid back, and is relentlessly productive. He may have quit making furniture for the sake of art and began making them functional, but he still created. But the moment conflict entered between Marcella and Caroline, and where that conflict may have grown into a weird obsession for each of them,their productivity also fell through the floor.  Then we come to the end of the story where Caroline’s productivity has finally returned but only after “vanquishing” her foe, Marcella. Also, Dean’s own productivity wanes a bit during the escalation of hostilities between the two women as he is forced into their conflict.

I’m not sure if Lee is making a statement about where art comes from or how finicky the process can be and how it can be so easily derailed. It can probably go both ways.  There could also be an argument for Lee saying something about the art and function. By the end of the story, we learn Dean has moved from a rare, expensive Japanese hardwood to a more prevalent and less expensive North American hardwood for his chairs. He has already abandoned the idea of constructing furniture solely for the sake of art, and now he’s moving more towards building for the sake of using.

With Marcella, who we still do not know if she has been productive, it would now make more sense if we assume she hasn’t – at least if we also assume that the rivalry Caroline saw between them was shared. Following Lee’s image of Dean as artist, and how Caroline could only resume writing after moving past the conflict that had haunted her for years, Marcella still shouldn’t be able to write, or at least write productively.

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