Back-of-the-book-blurb: May and Pearl, two sisters living in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, are beautiful, sophisticated, and well-educated, but their family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Hoping to improve their social standing, May and Pearl’s parents arrange for their daughters to marry “Gold Mountain men” who have come from Los Angeles to find brides. But when the sisters leave China and arrive at Angel’s Island (the Ellis Island of the West)–where they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months–they feel the harsh reality of leaving home. In order to survive their ordeal, the sisters make a pact they can never break.
She is Too Fond of Books’ review: First, I have to tell you … if this review grabs your attention (and I hope it does!), please don’t read the actual book flap summary. Don’t read the full publisher’s synopsis available at so many online retail sites. These give away too much of the plot, and you’ll want to discover it, along with Pearl and May, as it occurs.
Lisa See writes with Pearl, the jie jie (older sister), as the first-person narrator, in the present tense. This is incredibly effective in putting the reader right there with the sisters. I smiled, cringed, and alternated between clenching and dropping my jaw in parts; the writing is that strong.
We see the girls’ confusion as they lose their places as “beautiful girls” in the bourgeois class of Shanghai in 1937. Their fate turns on a dime, or silver dollar in this case, as their Baba’s gambling debts come due and he arranges marriages to Chinese Americans in order to settle the debt.
It’s clear that See has extensively researched the conditions that the sisters would have faced – the Japanese had invaded China, ocean crossing and immigration was an ordeal, and it turned out that the streets of America were not, in fact, paved with gold. The history of Los Angeles’ Chinatown is shown via the struggles of one extended family, who indicate a desire to assimilate with American ways, yet hold tight to their Chinese traditions. Political changes in both countries play a role, and the impact of wars is shown in a very personal manner.
Through it all, Pearl fulfills what she believes to be her duty as jie jie to May. The references to family relationships and the many tiers of honor are evident; Pearl observes her own mother in a time of great stress:
I see a hardness in her that I’ve never seen before. Maybe we’re all like that with our mothers. They seem ordinary until one day they’re extraordinary.
And Pearl’s thoughts about May, her moy moy (little sister):
May and I are sisters. We’ll always fight, but we’ll always make up as well. That’s what sisters do: we argue, we point out each others frailties, mistakes, and bad judgement, we flash the insecurities we’ve had since childhood, and then we come back together. Until the next time.
And her mother’s jade bracelet, which reminds her that family ties that last forever:
I focus my eyes on my jade bracelet. All these years and for all the years after I die, it will remain unchanged. It will always be hard and cold – just a piece of stone. yet for me it is an object that ties me to the past, to people and places that are gone forever. Its continued perfection serves as a physical reminder to keep living, to look to the future, to cherish what I have. It reminds me to endure.
The fictional Pearl and May, like many actual Chinese in America during this period, endured. Shanghai Girls is a work of historical fiction that both entertains and teaches.
About the author: Lisa See is the author of several previous novels, including Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (a favorite of mine!) and Peony in Love (which I haven’t yet read), and a memoir, On Gold Mountain. The hardcover of Shanghai Girls is available now; the paperback will be released on February 2, 2010. A sequel to this novel is planned.
I read and reviewed Shanghai Girls as part of Lisa See’s blog tours with TLC Book Tours. To visit other stops on the tour, read other opinions, read an interview, and perhaps enter a giveaway for the book, check this schedule:
- Monday, January 4th: Suko’s Notebook
- Tuesday, January 5th: The Literate Housewife Review
- Wednesday, January 6th: Stephanie’s Written Word
- Thursday, January 7th: She is Too Fond of Books
- Friday, January 8th: Book Club Classics
- Monday, January 11th: Luxury Reading
- Tuesday, January 12th: Diary of an Eccentric
- Wednesday, January 13th: Peeking Between the Pages
- Thursday, January 14th: Caribousmom
- Friday, January 15th: The Book Faery Reviews
- Monday, January 18th: Booking Mama
- Tuesday, January 19th: Savvy Verse & Wit
- Wednesday, January 20th: Dolce Bellezza
- Thursday, January 21st: Book, Line, and Sinker
- Friday, January 22nd: Word Lily
- Monday, January 25th: The Brain Lair
- Tuesday, January 26th: A Lifetime of Books
- Wednesday, January 27th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
FTC disclosure: review copy provided by the publisher via an independent publicist.