Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Random House
How I Read It: from my own personal library
Release Date: 5/26/2009
Rating: 4 Crowns
In 1930's Shanghai, sisters May and Pearl are living the glamorous life of well to do Chinese girls. Immersed in the fast paced world of the city, they obsess about fashion and their career as "beautiful girls", calendar models painted to sell any product you can think of. While they are wrapped up in their carefree existence they fail to notice that the possessions around their house have been slowly disappearing as have some of the servants. Little do they know their father is harboring a terrible secret: he has squandered the family fortune and gotten himself indebted to a local crime organization. The only way to pay his debt? To agree to arranged marriages for Pearl and May with "Gold Mountain Men"-Chinese men who live in America but return to Shanghai for brides. May and Pearl fight try to escape this fate as the political climate around them changes. Invasion from Japanese forces is not far off and when the city is no longer safe, the sisters take the only course of action they have: to flee to America to the husbands they never wanted. Thinking they are free of their difficulties the sisters are about to discover that even more hardships await them as they arrive in America. This is complicated by the discovery that May is pregnant, a secret which can never be told. From the glittering city of Shanghai to the China Towns of California, Shanghai Girls follows May and Pearl on their journey where the only thing they can count on is the bond they have with each other.
See starts off the novel by painting a vivid picture of Shanghai before Communism. I could picture May and Pearl careening through the cramped noisy streets of the city whiled being pulled in a rickshaw, strolling through the bustling city littered with garbage (and the occasional body), shopping at upscale stores to pick out the perfect clothes for their modeling jobs. I really felt the city come alive. These girls were so involved in their own existences they didn't notice what was happening around them-at home or in the city itself. By time they do it is too late. The author does a nice job of contrasting the difference between the old ways of the parents (foot binding and arranged marriages) with the modern ideals of Pearl and May (having a career, leading independent existences). While Pearl and May seek to embrace their modern lifestyles, at heart they are obedient Chinese daughters and when the reality of what their father has agreed to sinks in they reluctantly go along with it.
A little further along in the novel there are some pretty gut wrenching ordeals faced by the main characters and this was one area I had a bit of a problem. What the characters were experiencing was something that would elicit a very strong emotional reaction, yet the way it was told felt like they were somewhat disconnected. The author failed to tap into the emotion here which was kind of disappointing. I really enjoyed when the girls finally made it to America and the descriptions of their experiences there. The author makes the Chinese neighborhoods around Los Angeles come alive and does a great job of explaining the way of life of immigrants and the blatant racism they faced. She builds quite a cast of characters with the Louie's, the family the girls married into. We continue the journey with Pearl and May as they adapt to their lives with their husbands while wishing desperately they could escape their situation.
I will not give away the ending but I will say the story does not end with Shanghai Girls. A person reading who did not know that there is a sequel might be quite disappointed and put off by the ending. Also before the conclusion is reached there is a conversation between the sisters where they accuse each other of thinking only of their own points of view throughout all of their experiences and not how it was for the other sister. I mention this because it is reminiscent of the conversation the two lead characters in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan had and leaves me wondering if she goes this route in all of her novels.
Overall I enjoyed the book. Although I didn't really care for either of the sisters in the beginning because they were so self absorbed, I thought they grew a lot as the story progressed and by the end I quite liked both of them. I learned a lot about Chinese culture during the 1930's and also about the hardships Chinese immigrants faced when coming to the US. I cannot wait to see how the story ends in See's forthcoming novel, Dreams of Joy.
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