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September 26, 2022

Shanghai Girls : Book Review

By Wendy Robards

Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See.

So often we're told that women's stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter, and sister? A baby's illness, the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty, or even in the best of days are considered small and insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who wage battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. We're told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men. - from Shanghai Girls, page 228 -

Lisa See's latest novel, Shanghai Girls, is a story of a family ... but mostly it is a story about two women, specifically two sisters. May and Pearl are living in Shanghai in 1937. They are "beautiful girls" -- born into wealth with all the privileges that entails. But when their father gambles away their life savings, both girls are sold into marriage to pay off the debt. Forced to marry two Chinese boys who currently live in Los Angeles, May and Pearl still hope to remain in Shanghai, working as beautiful girls and living their lives unchanged. Within weeks, however, the Japanese invade China and the girls flee their home to find passage on a ship to San Francisco. What follows is a journey marked by fear, violence, and uncertainty. When the shores of America are finally reached, Pearl and May must get through the labyrinth of immigration before they finally are reunited with their husbands in Southern California. But life is not what they expected.

What's the first impression you have of a new place? Is it the first meal you eat? The first time you have an ice cream cone? The first person you meet? The first night you spend in your new bed in your new home? The first broken promise? The first time you realize that no one cares about you as anything other than the potential bearer of sons? The knowledge that your neighbors are so poor that they put only a dollar in your lai see, as if that were enough to give a woman a secret treasure to last a lifetime? The recognition that your father-in-law, a man born in this country, has been so isolated in Chinatowns throughout his life that he speaks the most pathetic English ever? The moment you understand that everything you'd come to believe about your in-laws' class, standing, prosperity, and fortune is as wrong as everything you thought about your natal family's status and wealth? - from Shanghai Girls, page 135 -

See's novel takes the reader from the lavish streets of Shanghai to the isolation of immigration services on Angel Island in San Francisco, to the hectic streets of Chinatown in Los Angeles; and spans 20 years of American history and turmoil. Narrated in the distinct voice of Pearl, the eldest sister, the story explores a woman's role in a traditional Chinese family, the discrimination leveled against Chinese immigrants in the United States during the 40s and 50s, and the relationship between two sisters. Ultimately a secret which Pearl and May keep throughout their lives has far reaching repercussions which neither young woman could possibly have imagined.

As in her previous novels, See develops memorable characters and has a firm grip on the historical details which bring to life the Chinese community in California during the mid-twentieth century. If there is a fault in the novel, it is in the middle section when Pearl and May settle into their new lives. Detailed and methodical, the story slows here and becomes a bit plodding at times. See redeems herself during the last fourth of the novel when the tension rises and secrets are revealed which spark conflict between the two sisters. It was during these last pages of the novel where See completely enthralled me.

Readers who have enjoyed See's previous work will not be disappointed by this latest effort.

Four stars out of five.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".

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Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-01-18
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