A Twist on Balzac

The town of Yong Jing in Northern China is "so small that when the local canteen prepared a dish of beef and onions the smell reached the nose of every single inhabitant." And the 17-year-old narrator of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Knopf; 197 pages) and his friend Luo, 18, city youths from Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, are dispatched to a small village so remote it is a long day's journey from Yong Jing. It is 1971, midway during the Cultural Revolution, and they are the unwitting—and unwilling—assignees to a program of...

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