Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Book Review: Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls
Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Random House
Published Date: May 2009
ISBN: 978-0812980530
Pages: 336
Genre: Historical Fiction; Contemporary Fiction
Source: Crazy Book Tours
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Summary: In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, full of great wealth and glamour, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives, thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business. Though both wave off authority and traditions, 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 living the carefree life ... 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, one that will take them through the villages of south China, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the foreign shores of America. In Los Angeles, they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with their stranger husbands, 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 they also know exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other the most. Along the way there are terrible sacrifices, impossible choices and one devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the heroines of this astounding new novel by Lisa See hold fast to who they are – Shanghai girls.

My Thoughts: Shanghai Girls is the story of sisters Pearl and May, born into wealth and promise, totally spoiled and expecting to be given whatever they want. They are completely ignorant of the changing political climate and their father's financial ruin until suddenly, one day, their lives change drastically. They are forced to flee Shanghai for America and must learn to adapt in order to survive. They have only each other to rely on when they land in California.

Although they are family, each sister is an individual with her own desires, feelings and ideas. As such, each sees life from different perspectives. And if they don't learn to communicate, to understand each other and reveal the secrets that twist them up inside, love and loyalty may crumble at the feet of petty jealousies, anger and resentment.

Lisa See's writing is vivid, strong and unforgiving. The older sister, Pearl, ("jie jie" in Chinese) is the narrator. Through her, the reader has the opportunity to experience things as if living beside her We feel Pearl's pain, understand her confusion and know when she feels unsafe. Pearl is shocked by the conditions in LA's Chinatown which are nothing like the opulence she knew in Shanghai, but she clings to the apartment she and May live in despite her initial repulsion. She resents her younger sister, May, ("moy moy" in Chinese) going out everyday and adapting to the employment, resources and people of Chinatown. In short, May is building a life for herself little by little in the film industry. She doesn't understand her sister's behavior and seems to care little what's happening in Pearl's life. She gives little credence to a terrible trauma Pearl suffered before they left China. During this time in history, nobody knew of, let alone understood PTSD, (they certainly didn't in culturally sheltered Chinatown), which is probably what's ailing Pearl.

As the years pass, we share Pearl's struggles, victories, sorrows and happiness. She pines for China and mourns the loss of the Shanghai she once knew, comparing everything: experiences, places, people, etc, to the Shanghai of her childhood. She becomes political, joining protests regarding what she understands to be going on in China, though she isn't always perfectly informed. In short, she wants to be a part of America but she doesn't want to let go of Chinese traditions. May is living a nearly polar opposite life, always in the present. For her, it is as if the past never existed and the future too uncertain to care about. She seems more content. The sisters love each other and will always be loyal simply because they are sisters, but they grow distant over the years, each refusing to understand the other, listen to each other's needs, concerns, and what makes them happy.

I found this amazing book very difficult to read in spots. There is death: dead bodies, dead babies and rape, making several of the more graphic scenes hard to stomach. It isn't a happy book and, at times, the sadness and hopelessness dragged me down. Pearl is troubled, worried or sad much of the time, but often for good reason. It's hard to imagine experiencing what she has and be able to still stand tall. The few times she is happy looms large and you can feel the lightness in her spirit but the tension and stress quickly return .

Shanghai Girls covers 1937-1957 in the USA and China, including the Japanese bombing of Shanghai and Pearl Harbor Mao Tse-tung's Red China. The USA's treatment of Chinese immigrants during this period was often times cruel causing me to cringe as I read what Pearl, and others experienced. But Pearl is her mother's daughter. She may have been raised in riches but she is strong and resourceful. The wisdom passed on and lessons learned from her mother while growing up make sense to her now, though at the time she mocked them with a spoiled child's insolence. Pearl draws on her memories to help her get through the days and make a life for her family in America while never forgetting her Chinese roots.

Pearl is a remarkable woman who endures much pain and hardship for May and the family she loves. She and May approach life very differently but both women share at least one common goal: survival. Author Lisa See has told their story, the story of countless Chinese women over those terrible years of political unrest, with love, respect and a fierce honesty. It was a privilege to read Shanghai Girls and it's a story I will carry with me for a very long time.


  1. I liked this one a lot too Amy, but Snowflower and the Secret Fan is my all time favorite --have you read it?

  2. I also loved this book but like Bibliophile I think I liked Snowflower more also. Great review!

  3. I am glad I read this, but frankly, I found it annoying in places -- the sisters were so shallow to me. I also hated the ending. It was like See needed to get it to her publisher...

  4. Great review Amy. I really enjoyed this book as well. I have a few others of hers I'd like to get to one of these days.

    ps...Thanks for being such a good friend...

  5. I liked this book a lot-it has a lot of good material on the hardships of the immigration experience of Chinese Americans-I have read her other two historical novels and unlike most I think I like Shanghai Girls most of the three-I really enjoyed your post

  6. I am so glad you enjoyed this one, Amy. It's one I've been meaning to get to but there always seems to be another book that gets in the way.

  7. I can't buy one more book but I really want to read this one. My mom's birthday is coming up--guess what she's getting?!

  8. I know I need to read this! Loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, too.

  9. This has been on my wishlist for a long time and you once again reminded me that I need to read this book.

  10. I loved this one, too! Can't wait to read her other novels.

  11. BIBLIOPHILE BY the SEA: I haven't read "Snowflower and the Secret Fan" yet but I was wondering about Lisa See's other books. I'm putting it on my tbr list towards the top and will read it soon. Thank you Diane!

    JO-JO: Thank you! Okay, 2 for "Snowflower". Well if you & Bibliophile liked it that much, I definitely want to read it soon!

    KATHYA: I completely agree with you, although I mostly was annoyed by May, I felt very sorry for Pearl esp. because of that awful night before she arrived in CA. I still have mixed feelings about the ending. This book left me with a lot to think about.

  12. DARLENE: Thank you! I want to read some of Lisa See's other books, too. "Sunflower and the Secret Fan' has been recommeded by 2 very reliable bloggers so I'm going to try to read it soon. Have you read it yet?
    You are a wonderful friend, Dar No worries :o)

    MEL-U: I'm looking forward to reading Lisa See's other books. I've heard good things about all of them. I didn't know a lot about the Chinese American experience and appreciated the information in this book about it, although it was troubling to find out how these people were treated. I'd like to read more about that issue & am going to do some research on it.
    Thank you for commenting!

  13. LITERARY FELINE: I feel exactly the same way about so many books. I purposely participated in Crazy Book Tours so that I would have to read this book and a few others! There are so many books I'd like to read but it's not possible to get to them all!

    LISA: Hey, good idea! Give this book to mom for her birthday and, of course, she'll lend it to you after she reads it! I like that kind of thinking! lol

    JOANN: "Snowflower and the Secret Fan" has been highly recommended to me by 2 other bloggers and now you loved it too!I definitely want to get this book and read it! Thank you!

    IRISONBOOKS: Shanghai Girls was on my tbr list since it was published so when I saw it was part of the Crazy Book Tour it was a perfect opportunity for me to read it since I had to commit to reviewing it. And I'm so happy I did. I think I signed up for a few other books, too! There are so many great books to read, it's hard to choose!

    ANNA: I feel the same way! I'm going to read "Sunflower and the Secret Fan" very soon...I hope! Thank you for commenting!