Friday, September 17, 2010

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 336
Date Published: May 2009
Publisher: Random House
Source: Crazy Book Tours
Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book description:
Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are beautiful, modern, and living the carefree life in prewar Shanghai--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 Los Angeles to find Chinese brides.
As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime. In Los Angeles, they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married and striving to embrace American life. Along the way there are terrible sacrifices, impossible choices, and one devastating, life-changing secret.
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I've been meaning to read a book by Lisa See for ages, and finally I got my chance! I wasn't really sure what to expect, but this book grabbed hold of me from the first few pages and wouldn't let me go until I finished the last page.

The main reason I loved this book was the setting. Settings, to be exact. I haven't read much on China in the years leading up to and including the Japanese invasion. Ms. See's writing transported me to a time and place that started out full of hope and promise and became one ravaged by the horrors of war. The journey of the two sisters to escape the Japanese was heart-wrenching and full of suspense, and their detainment at Angel Island upsetting and touching. I say touching because even though they were basically incarcerated during that time, they developed strong bonds with the other women who were stuck in the same situation. After they finally were able to meet back up with their husbands (who they had basically been forced to marry through arranged marriage in China), I was drawn in by the story of this family, struggling to grasp a bit of happiness in California during a time when Chinese people were really looked down upon (Depression-era through Red Scare-era). Pearl and May's lives were hard, as they struggled to find their place in a family they didn't choose and a country that forever regarded them with suspicion.

Reading this book was like seeing the events of my history book come alive. I knew about the ways that Chinese immigrants were treated in the US in this period, but this made it feel more real, more personal. Ms. See aptly portrayed what many Chinese Americans must have felt at the time--the fear of being deported, the anger at Americans who commercialized and used the Chinese culture for their own benefit (and not out of any real respect for the culture and people), and the struggle to remember their home country with love even as it was transforming into a Communist country that they didn't recognize and that their adoptive country despised.

The characters could be frustrating at times, but I think that's what made it feel so real to me. Pearl, the older sister, kept criticizing herself for dwelling on her own problems and not doing better to care about her younger sister's hardships. But in just about every way that I looked at it, the younger sister (May) had the easier life, and she should have been the one being more sympathetic to Pearl's hardships. I understood that May was important in getting Pearl to stop feeling sorry for herself, to get out and move on, but it really didn't seem like Pearl really got to feel sorry for herself. She was too busy trying to survive.

But, really, the family drama took second place for me because I found the setting (and how it affected their lives, relationships, livelihoods, homes, etc.) the most interesting part. The book ends with a cliffhanger, and a sequel is in the works. I'm glad for the sequel but surprisingly I would have been OK without one. I'm not sure why, but there it is. Anyway, I'm looking forward to the sequel. Assumedly it will follow Pearl in her journey to Communist China to find her daughter Joy. The setting, again, is the main thing I'm looking forward to, though I'm extremely curious how the family will cope with the events at the end of Shanghai Girls and the events to come.

Related linkage:
Reading Challenge: POC Reading Challenge


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