Today's Reading

(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores March 2024.)

From the national lexicon of the Ministry of Education, People's Republic of China:

Sheng nu (Chinese:; pinyin: shèngnü; common translation: "leftover women")—unmarried women over the age of twenty-seven. Later adopted by the internet community to refer to often well-educated women who had passed the appropriate age for marriage.


Part 1:
RECRUITMENT

Chapter 1
10 MONTHS TO THE WEDDING

LULU

Sometimes, Lulu considers whether life would be better if she'd been born as a cockroach. Survival would be her only aim in life. She could adapt to anything, even being headless for a week.

And her brain would be tiny. So, so tiny that she wouldn't feel the unease of choosing a wedding dress under her future mother-in-law's watchful gaze. She assumed they'd casually browse racks, not sit so close together on a blush pink velvet couch, ensconced on a private floor as a team of three caters to them with sample booklets and designs and  eeps their champagne glasses full.

Only two months ago she'd been blissfully balancing a life of work, friends, and the occasional date to appease her mom, with no intention of getting married. And now she is engaged, pulled from one appointment to another, still barely able to process how she got here.

A well-dressed older woman with a gold measuring tape around her neck addresses Peng Ayi. "Peng Jie, you said you wanted four dresses?"

She flips through the booklet of beautiful dresses. "Yes, there's the tea ceremony, the Western ceremony, the dance, and the banquet. Let's design a fifth, just in case." 

Just in case of what? Lulu wonders. Will there be a secret ceremony where her mother-in-law takes her blood and sends a prayer up to the gods for sons?

Peng Ayi notices her mind wandering. "Lulu, why aren't you giving your opinion? Be more assertive, ah."

Lulu looks down at the booklets of smiling brides strewn on the table. Among the photos of frothy dresses with ballooning skirts, she spots one that looks relatively simple to put on, with a scoop neck and fabric that falls right below the ankle. "I like this one."

Peng Ayi tsks. "That looks cheap. Lulu, you must discard your old mindset. There is no budget, so think bigger! How about this one?" She points at a dress with a train so long that the dimensions of the photo aren't enough to contain it. "Harv told me to get you the dress of your dreams. We can't let him down, ah?"

The tailor giggles. "Wah, your fiancé must love you very much!" 

Lulu's not sure love describes what they have. Her first date with Harv had been like all the rest, pleasant but unexciting. She usually went out with men once, then never saw them again, returning to her perfectly content single life. When her mom demanded recaps, Lulu would come up with excuses for why someone wasn't a good fit. She'd lied and said Harv had made them split the bill, assuming that was the end.

When Harv asked her out for a second date, it should've been enough for her mom just to know her daughter was 'wanted,' especially after all the reminders that she's twenty-seven and officially a 'shèngnü' by popular definition. But her mom had encouraged her to accept. What's the harm, Lulu? she said. Don't you want to be with someone? Just give him another try. It would make me so happy. She'd been gentle, pleading.

Besides, Harv was kind, polite, and easy to be around. Harmless. It never occurred to Lulu, a restaurant hostess with nothing to her name, that Shanghai's most eligible bachelor wasn't just having his fun with her. Her mom had been kinder too in the months they dated, calling to check in on her without asking for money, telling her how proud she was. Lulu was more than glad to keep her off her back.

Until six months later, when Harv proposed in grand fashion in front of all their friends and family, and Lulu knew she'd started down a path impossible to turn back from.

Peng Ayi clicks her tongue, bringing Lulu back to the room. "All these dresses are so uninspiring. Perhaps we can revisit the option of getting you something custom-made..."

"I'd be perfectly happy with any of the dresses here," Lulu says quickly.

Peng Ayi sighs. "You're right. If we wanted something haute couture, we should've gotten started over a year ago."
...

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