Reviewers often comment on this volume being completely immersive in the minutiae of the daily rituals of the ladies and their maids. I have completely lost myself in this book in the way that I see others reading "Twilight" or "Fifty Shades of Grey" - I have stopped calling and emailing loved ones, and I have stolen more time than possible at work to read this as an ebook. This volume primarily concerns a gilded year at the Rong-Guo mansion. With the Prospect Garden's original purpose nullified (the imperial concubine has no visits scheduled for at least the next year and a half), Bao-yu and all the girls move in and devote themselves to poetry and day long entertainments consisting of crab, rice wine, painting, riddles, actors, and firecrackers. Behind the scenes there is infighting among the maids and tears all around. It's remarkable how easy it is to keep track of the hundreds of characters, but this volume of the novel benefitted from extensive rewriting, while future volumes are often made obscure by inconsistencies from draft to draft. Having read a drastically abridged version twenty years ago, and having seen the two Shaw Brothers film adaptations (1962 and 1978), I am most impressed by what a nice guy Bao-yu is. I previously thought of him as a spoiled and impetuous brat, but the unabridged version shows how sensitive he is to the needs of his female cousins and maids, whom he treats as his equal. He's charming in his devotion to others, especially when he is late for Xi-feng's disastrous birthday party because he is busy saying prayers for her on the outskirts of town. I marveled at Xi-feng's industrious nature in the first volume, but how quickly she became vain and greedy! I love how the lesser maids talk to her in a way that both flatters her but does not conceal their contempt for her amongst themselves. We have master translator David Hawkes for preserving the subtle intentions of such skillful language. Toward the end we get brought back to reality, first with the dramatic conclusion to Xi-feng's birthday which ends with complete exposure of her marital woes and her beating her maid Precious, her only true confidante. The highest ranking servants benefit greatly from their proximity to their masters, but they are also the first to suffer when something happens. Xi-feng and Lian's marriage is an interesting portrayal of marriage in the ruling class. The wives have to bear the brunt of the work and the burden of their husbands' infidelities, while the servants have to hold secrets or incur their masters' wrath. Another example of the excellent writing and translation: we are always aware of the pecking order in any situation. One more compliment to the translation, we have Chinese names for the ruling family, English translations for the servants (Aroma, Precious, Faithful, Skybright), and French names for the actors (Charmante, Élégante). This helps me keep track of everyone. In this volume we are more privy to the thoughts of major characters such as Bao-yu and Dai-yu, of course, and Aroma, Granny Liu, Precious, Xi-feng, Grandmother and Bao-chai. We continue to see the emotional hardship in the private lives of the maids, such as Aroma's dilemma of whether to return to her family or stay and try to guide Bao-yu to adulthood. We also see the desperation of old women like Granny Liu and Nanny Li, though Granny Liu also has a great few chapters that are among my favorite. I was not prepared for her drunken walk of wonderment around the garden. And after seeing Bao-yu's father exhibit the desire to fit in with the women of the family (particularly his unresponsive mother) during the riddle games of chapter 22, we see him revert back to his worst impulses in chapter 33, giving Bao-yu the beating that is usually one of the big scenes in any of the film adaptations. As unfair and sad as that situation was, I was almost moved to tears reading the touching scene between Dai-yu and Bao-chai when convalescent Dai-yu admitted her own shortcomings and realized that Bao-chai is actually a good friend. So beautifully written! And I was reading with bated breath as the ill Skybright summoned her strength to darn Bao-yu's cape with peacock thread when no one else would try - how does a writer get someone to feel suspense over a thing like darning? This volume ends in a good spot: Cousin Zhen explains how little money is coming in to the Ning-guo house but it is not serious yet. Then he lays out how even less money is coming in to the Rong-guo house and that they have had to start dipping into their capital to pay for all their expenditures! He doesn't even know how much they've been spending, but we do: paying off Golden's family following her suicide, building the Prospect Garden, buying painting supplies for Xi-chun to make paintings of the garden, a mass influx of Xing/Xue/Wang in-laws, huge outlays for parties, including foolishness such as bringing in an acting troupe from the outside even though they have one staying there! Ultimately, what is it all for? (SPOILERS AHEAD) Very few outsiders show up for the Rong-guo house's New Year's bash, either due to embarrassment for being poor, illness/old age, or dislike of Xi-feng.