The book received reviews related to "warmth and humor." It has been stated as well that the novel "abound[s] in gentle humor, warm bonhomie and appealing charm" in Time Europe.
The novel has likewise been seen as an emotional tale. Jeff Zaleski has reviewed Balzac as a "moving, [and] often wrenching short novel". Dai Sijie has been praised as a "captivating, amazing, storyteller" whose writing here is "seductive and unaffected". In a San Jose Mercury News article, the novel is described as one that will resonate with the reader.
Topics covered in the book–to do with the Cultural Revolution–have been elaborated on and reviewed. Dai Sijie, as "an entertaining recorder of China's ‘ten lost years’," addresses the Cultural Revolution. It is seen by some as "a wonderfully human tale" and relatable. The ending of the novel has received some positive attention. The ending has a "smart surprising bite" says a Library Journal article. In Publishers Weekly, the conclusion is described as "unexpected, droll, and poignant". The story itself is seen as unprecedented, "not another grim... tale of forced labor." Also popular, it has been described as a "cult novel." and was a bestseller in France in the year 2000.” However, there have been negative reviews. Brooke Allen of The New York Times Book Review states that the novel is "worthwhile, but unsatisfactory" and that the epithets for most of the characters "work against the material's power." In addition, the novel has received complaints from Chinese government officials in its portrayal of the Cultural Revolution.