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Shanghai Girlsby Lisa See
"See's tale of the two sisters' love and rivalry, their romantic adventures and long struggles to regain their balance in a new land is entertaining, if melodramatic." Julie Phillips, Ms. Magazine (read the entire Ms. Magazine review)
Synopses & Reviews
In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamor, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, 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.
At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection, but like sisters everywhere they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other, but each knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other the most. Along the way they face terrible sacrifices, make impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are — Shanghai girls.
"See (Peony in Love) explores tradition, the ravages of war and the importance of family in her excellent latest. Pearl and her younger sister, May, enjoy an upper-crust life in 1930s Shanghai, until their father reveals that his gambling habit has decimated the family's finances and to make good on his debts, he has sold both girls to a wealthy Chinese-American as wives for his sons. Pearl and May have no intention of leaving home, but after Japanese bombs and soldiers ravage their city and both their parents disappear, the sisters head for California, where their husbands-to-be live and where it soon becomes apparent that one of them is hiding a secret that will alter each of their fates. As they adjust to marriage with strangers and the challenges of living in a foreign land, Pearl and May learn that long-established customs can provide comfort in unbearable times. See's skillful plotting and richly drawn characters immediately draw in the reader, covering 20 years of love, loss, heartbreak and joy while delivering a sobering history lesson. While the ending is ambiguous, this is an accomplished and absorbing novel. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Lisa See might be the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Caucasian women, but the Chinese great-grandfather who arrived in California in 1871 has proved the most influential of her ancestors. "I am Chinese in my heart," See wrote in her family memoir, "On Gold Mountain." She is also Chinese in her fiction, having mined her heritage for the vivid period details of foot binding, dowries... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and death rituals that boosted "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" and "Peony in Love" to best-sellerdom. As the third installment in See's women's-Chinese-historical sub-genre, "Shanghai Girls" moves away from the more remote and picturesque past and into the 20th century. In 1937, Pearl and her younger sister, May, are beauties just coming into flower, calendar girls who primp by day and pose at night, in thrall to "all things foreign, from the Westernization of our names to the love of movies, bacon, and cheese." Their beloved Shanghai, the Paris of Asia, "kneels before the gods of trade, wealth, industry, and sin"; the girls think nothing of stepping delicately around a dead baby on the sidewalk on their way to the French Concession. Rickshaws jostle alongside Daimlers. But the gilded girls and their gilded city are doomed. Within a few pages, their father marries off his daughters to pay his gambling debts, and Japanese bombs begin to fall. Pearl's reaction to her fate sets the stilted narrative tone that makes "Shanghai Girls" less absorbing than its predecessors. "I thought I was modern. I thought I had choice. I thought I was nothing like my mother," she anguishes. "I'm to be sold — traded like so many girls before me — to help my family. I feel so trapped and helpless that I can hardly breathe." The grooms are emigrant brothers, "Gold Mountain men" who expect their new wives to join them in Los Angeles. But the arrival of the Japanese in Shanghai interferes with their departure, and by the time Pearl and May make it to California, their pampered pinup-girl personae are in shreds. As they wait interminably on Angel Island for clearance to join their husbands, Pearl struggles to recover from a brutal rape by the Japanese, and May gives birth to a daughter, Joy, paternity a question mark. The girls' arrival in Los Angeles returns See to the setting of her own family history, and her expertise in the Chinese immigrant experience has a tendency to slow things down. Some of the color, as in the previous novels, is delightful: "If your nipples are small like the seeds of a lotus," says a fellow detainee on Angel Island, "then your son will rise in society." But much of it, though fascinating, is more undigested: the practice of becoming a "paper son" to sidestep the ban on Chinese immigration; the ersatz staginess of China City, a playground for Hollywood types where Pearl and May toil in their father-in-law's businesses; the urgency of proving one's Chinese ancestry during the war against the Japanese, and the peril of that same ancestry once Mao's communist regime is in place. See's emotional themes are powerful but familiar — the bonds of sisterhood, the psychological journey of becoming an American — and when she pauses for character development, cliches creep in. To console themselves, Pearl and May revisit childhood memories: "They remind us of the strength we find in each other, of the ways we help each other, of the times that it was just us against everyone else, of the fun we've had together." Pearl, responsible and demanding, was born in the year of the Dragon, while May is an affectionate, self-absorbed Sheep; as children, they rejected such backwardness, but after a lifetime of transplanted travails, they take unexpected comfort in tradition. This is poignant, and See should let it speak for itself; instead, she makes sure there is no room for misinterpretation: "We raised our children to be Americans, but what we wanted were proper Chinese sons and daughters." The temporal distance of "Snow Flower" and "Peony" allowed See to take liberties as a storyteller, re-creating lost worlds that were at once dreamily evocative and anchored in the habits and objects of daily life. "Shanghai Girls" reads like a family album, with See trying to cram in as many snapshots as possible: Pearl's Chinese American coffee shop, May's business providing props and extras for "oriental" Hollywood films, Joy in kindergarten wearing her favorite cowgirl outfit, Anna May Wong, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Chinese men enlisting in the U.S. Army to win their citizenship. It's more history lesson than fairy tale. But China's 20th-century upheavals afford at least as much color as its days of old; "Shanghai Girls" will not lose See any fans, and it bravely moves her oeuvre into the challenging terrain of more recent history. Reviewed by Janice P. Nimura, who reviews for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[I]n Shanghai Girls [See] again explores the bonds of sisterhood while powerfully evoking the often nightmarish American immigrant experience." USA Today
"A buoyant and lustrous paean to the bonds of sisterhood." Booklist
From the author of the bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love comes a stunning new novel about two sisters who leave Shanghai to find new lives in 1930s Los Angeles.
About the Author
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.
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