The fourth of five of my Chicago Tribune reviews (published 6/21), a true story about post-impressionist painter Pan Yuliang brought gloriously to life in Jennifer Cody Epstein’s impressive debut novel.

The Painter from Shanghai
By Jennifer Cody Epstein
W.W. Norton; 416 pages; $24.95

What is known about the life of 20th Century Shanghai painter Pan Yuliang seems the stuff of fiction—her opium-addicted uncle sold her to a brothel at age 14; Pan Zanhua, a progressive customs official paid her debt and made her his second wife; she studied art in Paris and Rome, and became a famous Post-Impressionist painter until her controversial nudes forced her to abandon China for good.

It’s therefore unsurprising that the plot of Jennifer Cody Epstein’s debut novel about Yuliang’s life, “The Painter from Shanghai,” is utterly engrossing. But Epstein’s spotless pace, vivid characterization, and often breathtaking descriptions elevate the novel above any initial similarities with Memoirs of a Geisha to become its own distinctive canvas.

Yuliang’s strength and vulnerability, her believable growth throughout the novel into a daring, independent woman and the development of her artist’s eye are wholly absorbing, and Pan Zanhua’s support of Yuliang—even helping her unbind her feet—is charming and seductive. And Epstein’s exploration of their romance hits just the right note, tender but never maudlin, clearly painting their love just as Yuliang describes it: “a little like the need for air…You aren’t aware of it until the air is removed. And suddenly, you realize you are suffocating.”

The book’s intimacy is spellbinding, not because of the romance of the courtesan era when Yuliang “feels like a peach without its skin” but because of Epstein’s true achievement in resurrecting such a passionate woman who pursued a life of her own despite intrinsic barriers. Much like Pan Yuliang’s inspiring defiance of fate, Epstein’s assured, impeccable narrative transcends all expectation.