Monday, July 5, 2010

Shanghai Girls - Lisa See

Summary: In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gambles, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father's prosperous rickshaw business, twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Though both sisters wave off authority and tradition, they couldn't be more different: Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree...until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from California to find Chinese brides.

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America. In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown's old ways and rules. (Summary from the book - Image from www.lisasee.com - Book from the library)

My Review: May and Pearl, see Shanghai through the rose-colored glasses often worn by the young and the rich. As Japan invades China, the girls flee their beloved city and the terrors of war—but don’t escape entirely unscathed. Their story spans two continents and continues for several decades, through the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and into Mao Tse-tung’s Red China.

The central premise of Shanghai Girls book is the strong emotional ties that exist between mother and daughter, husband and wife, and, in particular, sisters but it was also about transformation, both personal and national—about the forces that shape our identity and, ultimately, change our lives. The relationships See creates are realistic combinations of loyalty, conflict, disappointment, sacrifice, and love. One of my favorite characters was Mrs. Chin. Her evolution from bound-footed submissive to a brave and selfless mother was something that will stay with me for a while.

When I sit down and think about it, this book was not a pleasant read. The portrayals of everything from the brutality of invading Japanese soldiers to the U.S. treatment of Chinese immigrants were horrifying on so many levels, but I felt compelled to continue reading out of a sense of personal obligation to the people who really experienced these things. As if, somehow, my reading allowed their voices to be heard, despite the fictional context. I don’t know if that makes any sense. While I loved the exquisite detail that See poured into her descriptions of Chinese delicacies, and the rich heritage and long-standing traditions of the Chinese people, these literary delights came with an unpleasant consequence—intense images of abject poverty, death, and depravity. By the end of this book, I'd read enough descriptions of dead babies, disease, and rape to last a lifetime.

I haven’t read any of Lisa See’s other works yet (most notable - Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love) so I can’t say how this book compares to her others. I do know that I felt the ending was a bit contrived and didn't really mesh well with the rest of the book. It moves very slowly (like I said, it spans decades) so I wouldn’t go into this book expecting a fast-paced story or a “feel good” read, but I still felt it was worth reading.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars. For the sensitive reader: I wouldn’t recommend this book to just anyone. Be prepared for unpleasant things. They aren’t glorified in any way but there is some very real violence and other subject matter that was difficult to read.

Sum it up: A book that tugs at the heart in many ways. I went through a whole myriad of emotions while reading and, though I’m not likely to pick this book up again, I’m glad I read it.

6 comments:

Maria Delgado said...

Hmmmm.... Maybe I will check this out. Not sure about the violence. I usually go for books of a light nature. I have a 3 year old and tend to use reading as a getaway. ;)

Gerbera Daisy Mom said...

We just finished this for book group and the consensus was the ending SUCKED. I thought the premise of this book had such great potential, but the story just didn't follow suit. Also, I would avoid Peony in Love unless you want to read about Ghost Sex! Seriously!!! We read that too as a book group and ended up laughing oursleves silly because of some of the scenes.
My SG review was a little more harsh...but here it is...http://www.gerberadaisydiaries.com/2010/06/book-group-nightbook-review-shanghai.html

I'm done with reading Lisa See. Do you know she writes mysteries???

Lahni said...

I didn't like this one nearly as much as the other two you've mentioned here. My favourite was Peony, although most people tend to like Snowflower the best.

MindySue said...

@ GDM and Lahni - I think most people I've talked to have liked Snow Flower MUCH better. I thought this one was good (for all the little details) but depressing and the ending was...interesting but it felt a bit like a Nicholas Sparks novel. Ya know? Perhaps I should have just said that.

@GDM (again) I saw your review but refused to read it until after I had written mine. One of those "I don't want to accidentally plagiarize" things.

@Maria - If you are looking for an escape book, I can think of a MILLION that would be better. Email me with what genre you like and I'll give you a list! mindyoja AT hotmail DOT com

Amanda said...

Lisa See is my favourite author. I loved Snow Flower and the secret fan.

PattisPages said...

I actually liked this better than Snow Flower. Like you, though, I was disappointed in the ending, which leaves the reader hanging. I was planning to read Dreams of Joy anyway, but I don't like for the author to set the reader up for a sequel in such an obvious way.

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