Rebecca Lee

"The City is a Rising Tide"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUL 30, 2007)

"I had become comfortable. I was now thirty-one and had pulled myself out of any number of stupid entanglements, and I think that part of why I maintained so easily my unrequited love for Peter was that it was oddly stable. After all, I saw him every day, and that fact alone could, for months at a time, put me under the illusion that my romantic life had reached some sort of clearing, say, a flax-gold field, where one’s desires were never quenched but also never entirely awoken."

The City is a Rising Tide is a fiercely brilliant first novel from author Rebecca Lee. The novel--full of the memories of a tragic past--is narrated by 31-year-old Justine Laxness, money manager for the New York based non-profit organization, the Aquinas Foundation. Justine, who spent a great deal of her childhood in China, has known her boss, Peter, for over twenty years. They first met in the 70s in Beijing when Justine was an impressionable child, and Peter was working for the Nixon administration. Peter fell in love with Justine's amah--Maoist Su Chen who stayed behind in China when Justine--along with her family and Peter--fled due to the disintegrating political situation.

Read ExcerptAlthough Justine and Peter’s shared memories of Su Chen belong in the past, these memories are also persistently and painfully in the present. Peter, a diabetic “antivegetarian” and the somewhat impractical founder of Aquinas, is currently working on his dream project to build a "healing centre" at the "edge of the Yangtze River" in China. “Not quite hospital, not quite spa” the centre, dubbed the “Noodle House,” will likely attract and serve rich and famous Hollywood types who understand the concept of an exclusive retreat: “since they themselves required close, intricate types of attention — acupuncture, biofeedback, qi gong.”

While the Aquinas Foundation is supposed to be a non-profit organization, it’s tainted thanks to landlord and “intermittent benefactor, the debonair but vaguely insane Mr. John Burns ”...a man whose shady real estate deals may, at best be catastrophically impractical, at worst willful and deliberate rip-offs." But as Justine argues, “All money is bloody. The virtue lies in how it is spent.” Financial disaster looms for Aquinas when the question of money laundering is reared, plus the Chinese government is considering extending the Three Gorges Dam. If this happens, the proposed location of the Noodle House will be completely under water. The novel’s title The City is a Rising Tide refers to the possibility that plans for the Noodle House may be washed away, but the title also refers to the impending disaster poised to wash over Justine’s life.

At the Aquinas Foundation, Justine has a peculiar role, and far too much control. She nurses a deep unrequited love for Peter, and she’s fiercely protective of him. This translates into shielding Peter (at least that’s her argument) from the day-to-day traumas of running the non-profit, and also ensuring --as much as she can--that the plans for the Noodle House comes to fruition. As the project moves to the point of collapse, Justine juggles impending scandal with some financial shenanigans involving her former boyfriend, writer and film director, James Nutter.

The charity world and “the hubris that sprang out of charity” are portrayed here with a dash of wry humour, but at the same time, this is a world in which moral lines are often blurred through the old ends-justify-the-means argument. At one point, Peter asks Justine: “Where is the line beyond which you wouldn’t step?” And this is a question that resonates throughout the novel as Justine juggles plans for the Noodle House Project with financial difficulties. As Justine and Peter move in charity world circles, they run into familiar faces and old adversaries. Charity social events became arenas in which altruism, motivation, and the nature of charity are questioned and questionable.

In the novel, it’s clear that charity work attracts all types with a range of motives. Justine believes that those “who were driven by some totally pure notion of goodness and charity were the most baffling people.” But there’s not much pure selflessness here, although analyzing the motivations of others is always difficult, questionable and suspect. One person who’s difficult to decipher but whose motives are suspect is Justine’s ex-boyfriend Christopher “one of those insane charity types” -- a man who lives to “hustle off to trouble spots as if they’re big parties he’s missing.” Justine suspects that Christopher devotes himself to charity for “all the wrong reasons: that is, his own PR reasons, and actually more insidiously than that, his own internal PR, the things he broadcast about himself to himself.” And on the other end of the charity spectrum there’s missionary Francis Efferveti -- a man who sees the Noodle House as a “useless” project that fails to benefit the native population. 

Rebecca Lee’s deliciously crafted prose is delicate and beautifully poetic. This author is a serious wordsmith, and the novel reads almost like a short story (much longer of course)--but there’s the idea here that the reader is allowed just a glimpse of the lives of the characters, and the ending possesses that vague unfinished sensation that often comes with short story territory. While there is no definitive conclusion to this novel, the ending is wonderfully unsettling and marvelously understated. Justine is set on the road to her fate, and we can see her there -- even though she cannot yet fully envision the path she has taken. Rebecca Lee is a talent to watch, and readers of quality literary fiction should note her name.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The City is a Rising Tide at

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About the Author:

Rebecca LeeRebecca Lee has been published in The Atlantic and Zoetrope her work has been broadcast on National Public Radio.

She earned her MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was a Halls fellow at the University of Wisconsin and a winner of the Rona Jaffe Award and the National Magazine Award in 2001 for fiction. She teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014