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.
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.
Lisa See's book about China in 1937 stretching until shortly after the reign of communism begins is probably the most difficult book I have ever rated.
Going into this review I fully understand I was not raised in the Chinese culture and well, I'm white. I don't understand the reactions of the characters to situations and other characters. That's why while I say this book is the most depressing book I have ever read and I actually sympathize with the character who committed suicide because this book offered little hope and out of all 300 pages or so, you saw 2 paragraphs of happiness and even that was strained.
The book begins with Pearl and May, 2 sisters in Shanghai when they are roughly 18 and 21. Pearl, the oldest, is immediately identified as the lesser sister in their parents eyes having to endure demeaning ridicule and comparison to her younger, prettier, and daintier sister, May. As Pearl is telling this story in first person, you really feel how sad and embarrassed she is of herself. However, through it all, even with her parents obviously favoritism of her sister May, she takes care of her, and protects her, being her jie jie.
In the first few chapters we realize their Baba (father) is a gambling man who lost everything to debtors, even his own daughters in an arranged marriage. Up until then they always thought that unlike their parents, they would be able to marry for love and choose their partner themselves. They meet with Sam and Vern, the two men they will be marrying, which is out of tradition, but they are allowed to meet once before the wedding. Sam is a quiet and handsome man, very caring and mindful, while Vern is naught but 14 and very good at it, even a little less than mature. Pearl is to marry Sam, May is to marry Vern.
A little while later, 17 days, their new husbands to be are due for return from a "business trip" from Hong Kong for the marriage ceremony to take place. They after dodging, and Pearl being in love with another man, realize they have no choice to go through with it and they do.
When japan declares war on China, the city is bombed, people are dying all around them, and in defiance, they threw away the tickets that would have taken them to America to meet their husbands. When things get back, and their father either runs off from his debtors or is killed, their mother and them start trying to make their own way to America using the little money their mother stowed away from their father's gambling habit.
Through rape, the death of their mother, and persistence, they finally board a ship to take them to Angel Island, the west's version of Ellis Island. They find out May is pregnant, and not by her 14 year old husband, so while in detainment before being allowed to go home to their husbands, Pearl decides to raise the baby as her own since she had actually had sex with her husband on the wedding night.
If you are looking for a happy life in America, it's not here. If this sounds sad thus far, it only gets worse. It's more of May being terrible and selfish toward her sister, living in a tradition Chinese home with her in laws, her husband, her sister, and her sister's husband who is not only younger, and a very sweet boy, is ill with disease and mentally slow. The daughter that Pearl raises, Joy, is an absolute ingrate towards the end and continues to step all over her mother, and even her good natured and strong father. May is continually selfish being the almost privileged girl in life and blaming her poor sister who has done nothing but sacrificed for her.
If you either understand the culture, both traditionally and the earlier to mid turn of the 20th century or are just one of those people who don't mind being surrounded in misery from first to last page, then I have never read a better book for you. Being I am not, I didn't really enjoy the book on an emotional level, but the story is well written and flows enough to keep you interested and hoping for a better ending that never comes.