In a quiet corner in the heart of downtown Shanghai, a handsome young man with a stutter reaches a tacit friendship with an elderly button-shop owner, who finds it difficult to speak long sentences after a stroke and has opened the shop to sustain himself and kill time.
Both struggle to get others to understand them, but they come to know each others' hearts through simple words.
"It's rather impossible," the old man would say. For sentences longer than that, he would stammer. So he has developed economy in his daily speech.
"So it is yah," the young man with a handsome face would reply, in the local Shanghai accent.
They get along peacefully until one day a pretty woman, from the country's northeast, gets between them. She talks fast - lies, mostly - and the vulgar lady sells cheap clothes with trickery, renting a small corner in the old man's house.
The young man has a crush on her, though she is married.
Focusing on the everyday people living in the margin of the metropolis, writer Wang Anyi pays tribute to the country and its huge social transformation, cutting only a slice from the hustle of city life.
Critics believe Wang has found a unique way to depict the small eddies of human emotion caused by the changes in Chinese society as cities get more commercialized.
"Wang seems to find the key to record urban Chinese experiences: Using a small angle to reveal the bigger picture," says fellow writer Zhao Yu. "It's so far the best novella I have read in the past few years."
"The old man and the different arrangements of his house for his children is an epitome of Shanghai's recent development. While the young man represents the ordinary people at the city's bottom, the woman represents the migrant workers," Zhao adds.
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