In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, full of great wealth and glamour, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives, thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business. Though both wave off authority and traditions, they couldn’t be more different. Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and living the carefree life ... until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth, and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides.
As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the villages of south China, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the foreign shores of America. In Los Angeles, they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with their stranger husbands, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life, even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules. At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends, who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection. But like sisters everywhere, they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other but they also know exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other sister the most. Along the way there are terrible sacrifices, impossible choices and one devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel by Lisa See hold fast to who they are – Shanghai girls.
Recently I joined the local library's book club, Shanghai Girls by Lisa See was the first book on the list. I am so glad that I went, it was fun to discuss the book and on top of that the author, Lisa, joined us via skype!
Lisa wrote Shanghai girls from Pearl, the older sisters, point of view in first person. Usually I love first person point of view books but this one fell short for me. Lisa's style of writing, while beautiful and filled with wonderful descriptions, was one where more telling than showing was done. When I brought this up in discussion many agreed that a bit more dialogue would have been nice. One woman did point out that at the time this book is set in the Chinese culture was very secretive and did not discuss many things. However I fell that a lot of the jealousy between the two sisters could have been shown rather than told.
Shanghai Beautiful Girls Calender pages
Pearl and May posed for these Calenders while living in China
Lisa did a lot of foreshadowing in this novel so very little of what happened, good and bad (and there is a lot of bad) was a surprise to me. When something did surprise me it felt out of character.
I found the history in this book absolutely intriguing, Angle Island, Paper Sons/Wives and the difficulties of assimilating into America . When we asked Lisa about how and where she got all her research she enthusiastically said that most of it came from Family and Friends. That she was given pages and pages of old letters and journals from people that lived during this time period and that she toured Angel Island before it became open to the public. Lisa has a wonderful sight dedicated to all the research she did on this book with tons of Geographical Locations and Historical Links, you can visit it HERE.
Entrance to China city, 1939
China city is where most of the book takes place
Honestly I think the best part of reading this book was getting to chat with the Author. She grew up in Chinatown, Los Angeles and is 1/8th Chinese. Lisa comes fro a long line of writers, her grandfather wrote for a paper in Texas and her mother is Carolyn See. She talked about how she visited all the locations in the book and ate the food the characters ate. It was very interesting to learn that when she wrote Shanghai Girls she had no intention of writing a Sequel. The ending of Shanghai girls is rather abrupt and while I see what she was going for I wanted more closure. Well, she did end up writing a sequel Dreams of Joy.
I've decided to move on in my reading, and not pick up Dreams of Joy. Shanghai Girls was not my favorite book ever but many of the women at the discussion did enjoy it.
I give Shanghai Girls 3 out of 5 Sprinkles of Glitter.