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Book Review: *Shanghai Girls* by Lisa See

  • Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (February 2, 2010)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812980530
  • 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:

    FTC disclosure: review copy provided by the publisher via an independent publicist.

    31 comments to Book Review: *Shanghai Girls* by Lisa See

    • For a thorough understanding of the background of Shanghai Girls (which affects them personally in the book) I recommend “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang. It is nonfiction (and you wish it weren’t), and it is unforgettable.

    • Definitely a book I want to read! The Rape of Nanking has been on my wish list for a while, too… thanks for the reminder, Jill!

    • Thanks for the warning. I’m not actually reading your entire review b/c I still have to read the book!

    • Your reviews are just too darn good! I want to read every book you review! I hate it when the publisher gives too much of the story away.

    • Great review! I keep meaning to pick this one up.

    • Excellent review, Dawn. You are so good at this!!

      I agree that the synopsis gives too much of the story away.

      Thank you for all the time and effort you put into reading and reviewing Shanghai Girls. We appreciate it so much!

      By the way, I learned yesterday from Stephanie’s tour stop that there is a sequel in the works. I’m so excited about that- I loved this book!

    • I usually don’t read the book jackets more than a few lines. I tend to think that they provide too much information. I have this for review later in the month. Excellent review.

    • I haven’t read any Lisa See before, but I’d really like to! One of my goals for 2010 is to read more international authors, particularly Asian authors, because I tend to overlook them in my reading (which is very Western/American in its bias). I hate it when blurbs reveal too much about the story one is about to read, so thanks for the heads up… i I pick this one up, I’ll be sure to just dive right in!

    • Nice review! This book was on several people’s top lists for 2009, and now, after this tour, I think it is going to be impossible to NOT read it.

    • Terrific review! It sounds as if you really enjoyed this book.

    • Kim

      I have enjoyed everyone of Lisa See’s novels, including this one. I also had heard that there is a sequel coming, which I was very happy to see. Great review!
      *smiles*

    • The end was a shocker…I just wasn’t expecting the set-up for a sequel. I wonder how fast she writes?

    • This book is already pretty high on my to read list, but your review only reinforced me need to read it soon! Here’s to hoping my requested copy from the library comes in soon…

    • I really enjoyed this one too Dawn. Thanks for the great review.

    • I’m reading it right now, and I’m absolutely loving it so far!

    • This is on my list for 2010 .. I’ve heard such good things about it.

    • [...] Book Review: *Shanghai Girls* by Lisa See Hot topics …Giveaway: *In My Book* greeting card and bookmark in one! (37)Merry Christmas! (36)Happy New Year: resolving to not make resolutions (35)Book Giveaway: *Shanghai Girls* by Lisa See (33)On the Road to the Boston Public Library (21)Reactions to my ramblings … [...]

    • Great review Dawn. I really enjoyed this book and I can’t wait to read a sequel if there’ll be one.

    • I have been reading great reviews of this book and coupled with the fact that I have read other great books by this author makes me really want to dive into this book. Awesome review, I am glad you loved this book so much!

    • I liked this book but not as much as See’s other two novels. I will be reading the sequel though.

    • [...] reviews (most of which are more positive than this one) She Is Too Fond of Books Devourer of Books Books on the Brain Booking Mama CaribousMom Peeking between the Pages A [...]

    • MissBillie

      I just finished this book and LOVED it! I am looking forward to any sequel and to reading more by this author.

    • Yinda

      RE: Steph
      January 7th, 2010 at 10:20 am
      “I haven’t read any Lisa See before, but I’d really like to! One of my goals for 2010 is to read more international authors, particularly Asian authors, because I tend to overlook them in my reading (which is very Western/American in its bias).”

      Lisa See is actually only 1/8 Asian by the way.

    • I liked this book a lot better than the first book I ready from this author. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, was the first book I read by Lisa See. I found myself rooting for the character who the story is focused on. I just didn’t like the way it all came together. This book is totally different. I am engrossed in all the characters and those characters that I don’t particularly like, I find myself trying to see things from their perspective. This is a great book and I also reviewed it and gave it four peaches.

    • [...] Book Review: *Shanghai Girls* by Lisa See | She Is Too Fond Of … Shanghai Girls by Lisa See Paperback: 336 pages Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (February 2 2010) ISBN13:… July 19th, 2010 in Buy Shanghai Girls, Shanghai Girls Review, Uncategorized | tags: Buy Shanghai Girls, shanghai girls, Shanghai Girls Review, shanghai shanghai hotel [...]

    • [...] Dawn at She Is Too Fond of Books: “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.” [...]

    • chafika Hassani

      I like this book a lot. Beside the fact that “Shanghai girls” is very well written, The author Lisa See has brought about many well grounded historical facts, which means that she had made a lot of research before writing this great book.

    • [...] She is too fond of books: 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. [...]

    • Maida Smith

      For those of you who love Lisa See’s books as I do, may I also suggest Gail Tsukiyama who has also written books about Japan and China. Both excellent writers and well researched. I am still catching up on some of Lisa’s older books and I love Tsukiyama’s, Women of the Silk and Language of the Silk, as well as the Samurai Garden. Both these author’s know how to present the depth of their characters and the honor of living a life of integrity. We all need that these days.

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