First Line: "Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks," my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him.
Lisa See is a master of immersing her readers in a time and a culture completely different from their own. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was one of my top reads the year that I read it, and I couldn't wait to begin reading See's latest.
The 1930s are drawing to a close. Two sisters, Pearl and May, enjoy their lifestyle. They are "calendar girls"--what we would call models. Their faces sell dozens of different products. They wear the latest Western fashions. They party late. They like to ignore their rich parents. If a ceiling fan disappears or a few servants seem to have gone missing, Pearl and Mae pay little attention. They are young, beautiful, and they live in Shanghai--the Paris of Asia.
Their world falls to pieces when they learn that their father has gambled away his wealth and sold them as brides to two Chinese brothers living in California in order to clear his debts. They throw away their tickets to Los Angeles and go on modeling and going to parties, learning too late that their behavior cost them their chance to flee the invading Japanese. Going through hell to escape Shanghai, they make their way to California only to be kept at Angel Island--the Ellis Island of the West Coast of the United States. The next twenty years will bring many changes to their lives.
In so many ways, this book succeeds brilliantly. The author took my imagination straight to the streets of Shanghai and into the lives of two very young and selfish girls who can step over the body of a dead baby in the street on their way to a party, neither of them seeing anything wrong. This is one of the things I love about See's writing: the way she matter-of-factly opens my eyes to a totally alien culture.
The Japanese invasion of Shanghai was vivid, as was the two sisters' escape from the city. The endless months they were forced to spend on Angel Island made me a bit stir crazy, and Pearl's life in Los Angeles was depressing to the extreme.
Where the book failed for me was in the characterizations. I don't care for books in which all the male characters are depicted as lazy, stupid, weak, ego maniacal or just plain evil. Pearl's husband Sam was the sole decent male in the entire lot, and even he had his moments of weakness.
I also have to admit that I found the two main characters, May and Pearl, to be extremely irritating. May is the one who thinks only of herself. As long as she's being complimented and has plenty of pretty clothes to wear and fancy transportation, she's fit to live with. If those things don't happen, she's a pain in the neck. Pearl, on the other hand, is the classic martyr-- always sublimating herself in order to kowtow to what everyone else wants--and being oh so brave about it the entire time.
The ending of the book was rather abrupt. Almost a classic cliffhanger involving Pearl's spoiled daughter. It will be interesting to see if this does set up a sequel.
You may wonder why I still gave this book such a good rating. Such is the power of Lisa See's writing. Her depiction of Shanghai and Los Angeles during that time period and her description of culture in both Shanghai and the Chinatown of Los Angeles are so powerful that I can forget about wanting to shake some sense into both May and Pearl.
I am a character-driven reader. It is very seldom that I'm able to rate a book highly when I don't care for any of the people in it. In the case of Shanghai Girls, I think of the streets of Shanghai, the sights, the smells, bombs exploding, working in the shops of Chinatown in Los Angeles...the vivid canvas See painted is what I think of, not Pearl and May.
I thought this was a very good book, though perhaps not as much as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It moves quickly, though, the characters are well drawn, and the plot is interwoven well with swift twists and turns. I'd recommend it, since it also gives a window into Chinese culture and perspective of the 1930's into the fifties.
It was not nearly as good to me as Peony In Love or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I was interested in the story, but it seemed rushed at the beginning, and then rushed at the end as well.
Could not wait to read the sequel. As soon as I was through with this I ordered the sequel from the library. A good book club selection. Our club had a rousing talk on it.Very well written & See is a good story teller.
Although I was excited to read this book, I was very let down. The premise of the story was interesting, and I have read other books about historical China and really enjoyed them. I did not care for this book. I really did not find myself caring what happened to the main characters, and I was VERY disappointed by the ending - much to abrupt even if it is setting up for a sequel. All in all, if you want to read a good book by this author I would recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.