Thursday, July 7, 2011

~ Dreams of Joy by Lisa See ~

Book cover: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Title: Dreams of Joy
Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Random House
Published Date: May 31, 2011
ISBN: 978-1400067121
Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Fiction; Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: In her beloved New York Times bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and, most recently, Shanghai Girls, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the potent
bonds of mother love, romantic love, and love of country. Now, in her most powerful novel yet, she returns to these timeless themes, continuing the story of sisters Pearl and May from Shanghai Girls, and Pearl’s strong-willed nineteen-year-old daughter, Joy.

Reeling from newly uncovered family secrets, and anger at her mother and aunt for keeping them from her, Joy runs away to Shanghai in early 1957 to find her birth father—the artist Z.G. Li, with whom both May and Pearl were once in love. Dazzled by him, and blinded by idealism and defiance, Joy throws herself into the New Society of Red China, heedless of the dangers in the communist regime.
Devastated by Joy’s flight and terrified for her safety, Pearl is determined to save her daughter, no matter the personal cost. From the crowded city to remote villages, Pearl confronts old demons and almost insurmountable challenges as she follows Joy, hoping for reconciliation. Yet even as Joy’s and Pearl’s separate journeys converge, one of the most tragic episodes in China’s history threatens their very lives.

Acclaimed for her richly drawn characters and vivid storytelling, Lisa See once again renders a family challenged by tragedy and time, yet ultimately united by the resilience of love

My Thoughts: I read and reviewed Shanghai Girls by Lisa See many months ago. (see my review) It's a wonderful book about sisters Pearl and May, and the lives they made for themselves in Los Angeles. The book ends shortly after the family suffers a tragedy. As a result, Pearl's daughter Joy learns some stunning family secrets that turn her world upside down. I wondered: what became of Pearl, May and Joy? Since they impacted me so strongly, I hoped they would be important enough to prevail upon Lisa See to write a sequel. To my amazement and delight Ms. See continues the story in Dreams of Joy, a riveting follow up you don't want to miss.

Dreams of Joy, aside from a few pages in the first chapter, takes place in The People's Republic of China, a fascinating country in flux at the time. It is 1957 and China is led by Chairman Mao Tse-tung, celebrated for, among other things, his assistance in repelling the invasion of the Japanese. Early in Shanghai Girls, Pearl and May, barely out of their teens, flee the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, eventually landing in California. The sisters hear reports from relatives still there of Chairman Mao's reign and the programs he institutes, including the introduction of communism. Pearl and May are well aware of the unfavorable impact of many of Mao's changes. Their family has been fervent in their criticisms, though no one explains in any detail to Joy what's so terrible. Lisa See does a terrific job throughout Dreams of Joy giving us insight into a traditional Chinese family.

Joy has just finished her freshman year of college at the University of Chicago where she joined the group Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association. They support Chairman Mao's changes, including land reform. Joy, like many of the people in China, believes in Mao and his plans. She has talked incessantly about traveling there to help build a country the Chinese can be proud of and criticized her family for what she saw as backward thinking. When the FBI, targeting Joy's family as part of their rounding up Chinese people who favor Communism and Chairman Mao, encourages neighbors to inform on each other, Joy's family suffers betrayal and a terrible tragedy.

Secrets woven into the family structure for generations are revealed and Joy's world is shattered. Sam, the man she always believed to be her father, is not her biological father. Joy learns some other truths which I won't reveal but they shake her to her core. Overnight, her life is altered considerably. Joy, confused, hurt and angry, feels she has nowhere to turn and no one to trust, including her aunt and mother. She makes the impetuous decision to go to China, alone, to search for her real father, as well as to help the country. Struggling under the burden of these intense, complex emotions, Joy flees Los Angeles and her family. She feels guilty but, at the same time, believes she will be welcomed in China as a worker and daughter. When Pearl realizes Joy has run away, her only thought is to bring her home.

Dreams of Joy is narrated by Joy and Pearl. Each tells her story, from their own perspective, in respective chapters. Here we have two women of different ages and personalities whom we can understand, most of the time. When we can't, Lisa See makes sure we're still able to relate to them. She gives us detailed accounts of their behavior, believable and understandable because they follow from the moral foundation she's given them. And at the core is the universal human condition they find themselves in. Because Lisa See created such well developed, genuine characters, she's able to provide, through them, a detailed and comprehensive picture of China during this time.

Returning to China is an overwhelming experience for Pearl. As she finds her way to her childhood home, Lisa See treats us to Pearl's vivid memories of the Shanghai she once knew and loved. She finds a very different city now. We experience first hand Pearl's discovery that the same boarders her family had to take in to pay her father's debts all those years ago, still live in her ancestral home! There's a lot of tension between the boarders. Everyone is supposed to work together in the house and, although everything is divided equally, there's a lot of bickering and nobody gets along.

Though her bedroom looks exactly the same: "It's just as May and I left it..."., little else in Shanghai is the same. Pearl is dismayed when told " must follow the rules of the home and the street, or I will report you to the higher-ups." by the man who used to be the family cook. Back then, Pearl was one of his favorites, now she barely recognizes him.

This is the least of Pearl's problems. She desperately wants to find Joy and make sure she's safe. Pearl is considered sinful and corrupt because she's from the West. Chinese people have been told people like Pearl cannot be trusted. She has to meet monthly with Superintendent Third Class Wu Bayou and answer all his questions honestly. Pearl's told she'll have to endure many "struggle sessions in an effort to cast off your bourgeois individualism". She has to attend "thought-reform" sessions like all Chinese. Pearl also wants to work because the right job will help her blend in and provide her anonymity. A job requires registering with the government but since they already know about her, working makes her look obedient. One of the boarders in her family home, Dun-ao, used to be Daniel and was once a student and now a professor suggests Pearl become a paper collector. This was an honored profession when Pearl was a young girl in Shanghai but now it's similar to being a garbage man. But it's a very beneficial job for Pearl. It allows her to blend in, gives her access all over the city, something to do and coupons for food.

As she gets herself settled in, Pearl begins to realize that, just as the Shanghai of old exists only in her memories, she, too, may be living too much in the past. Through Pearl, we are privy to the extensive changes happening in China as a result of Mao's leadership. Shanghai's became a bland, colorless, lifeless place. The buildings are stripped of their beauty and individuality down to their names, themselves bland and unremarkable. The clubs, bars and restaurants are all gone and with them the musicians, waiters, bartenders and prostitutes. Pearl cannot believe she misses the prostitutes but that's how bad it is in Shanghai. Things reach a nadir the day she realizes the "once-grand Western-style buildings" have hanging nets in order to catch anybody trying to commit suicide.

Shanghai serves as a metaphor for Pearl's life. She always feels frightened although her calm, quiet facade belies the varied emotions churning beneath the surface where she feels sadness, despair and now grief over Sam. It's as if the life's gone out of her. Pearl may be close to middle-aged but she still has much to learn about life in general and herself in particular. Understanding that her home, the place she belongs and wants to be now is America. Not China. This is only the beginning. The growth and change Pearl experiences and the truths she uncovers about herself and life as the novel progresses is one of the most enjoyable and interesting aspects of Dreams of Joy.

Joy's metamorphosis from a naive, young woman into an adult is the other wonderful part of LisaSee's sequel. Joy is stubborn, confused and guilty. She's also angry at Pearl and May for deceiving her and wants to get away from them. Believing she understands the situation in China better than her mother and aunt sets her on a dangerous path. As with many young arrogant people, Joy doesn't know nearly as much as she thinks she does and doesn't understands the reality of the situation in China. Even when she observes hypocrisy in the society she believes is built on fairness and equality, she simply rationalizes until she's satisfied with the story she tells herself. It's difficult, sad, disheartening and even, at times painful to read Joy's story. There are times we either know or sense what's going to happen before she does and wish we could save her from a harrowing experience. But, like so many others, Joy has to make her own mistakes before she realizes how much she needs to learn and listen to the people who love her.

Lisa See provides vivid images of China under the reign of Chairman Mao. We get a clear view of what Pearl and Joy see and their very different opinions about the situation in China. Unfortunately, Lisa See's description of the atmosphere in China under Mao and where things went so wrong is somewhat vague and confusing. At times, it's frightening and menacing for Pearl and Joy but, other times, they aren't bothered by anything more than harassment. It's as if the men enacting Mao's laws didn't always know what they were doing. For instance, when Pearl is told she has to meet with a superintendent in his office monthly and answer all his questions truthfully, she does so with trepidation. But as the months go by, Pearl realizes it's not what she says that matters, rather, it's how she answers and how she treats him that counts. She discovers she can obtain a pass to travel to the countryside or anything else she wants if she does and says what the official wants to hear. There's quite a bit of corruption of and manipulation by officials, particularly in the countryside, which is where Joy spends most of her time. But it's unclear and confusing where things went wrong and why people behaved as they did. Maybe they believed in Mao and the men enacting his plans that strongly, maybe they were afraid to think for themselves or maybe they were utterly confused because their lives had changed so much from what they once were. Whatever the reason, things became very grim and bleak in China.

I was hoping I would read about life in China from the perspective of Z.G. Li. He didn't leave Shanghai like Pearl and May twenty years ago, so he's always been there. Joy latches on to Z.G. shortly after arriving in China and Pearl searches for him, hoping she'll find him with Joy. Z.G. was an artist years ago and painted Pearl and May's portraits when they were girls. When Mao came to power, Z. G. did whatever he had to to become an artist under the communist regime, so he could have given us a clear and accurate understanding of the situation and atmosphere. As a top artist, he was close to Mao and could even influence him. Sadly, we aren't made privy to Z.G.'s perspective.

Apart from missing these elements which could have provided more clarity via a very different perspective, this book was everything I'd hoped it would be. Lisa See brings the story to a satisfying conclusion, providing a chance to travel to another place and time that I would otherwise never have the opportunity to do. If you are looking to broaden your horizons about the world, China's recent history and how it's shaped how we live today, this book is a must read. And all the while Lisa See, through Pearl, Joy and the rest, keeps their humanity and the overall human condition at the forefront, making it identifiable no matter where you are when you read it. Dreams of Joy is a book well worth reading.

See Darlene's Review of Dreams of Joy at her blog Peeking Between the Pages

Lisa See has a wonderful website, be sure to check it out!

Thank you to Random House for sending me an ARC copy of Dreams of Joy to read and review!


  1. I am excited about reading this one as well, though I haven't read Shanghai Girls yet. What I will probably do is go back and read the first one before i tackle this one (since I do have it on my shelf). It sounds like though the book had a few small issues that you enjoyed it a lot, and I am now more eager to try it out for myself. Great review on this one!

  2. For whatever reason, I cannot get into See's writing. Shanghai Girls was a DNF for me (did not finish). Maybe it was because it was set in Los Angeles (where I live) but I'm not sure.

    I attended a panel with Lisa See once and was surprised to learn that she is actually part Chinese. I guess I was the only one on the planet who didn't know it but after hearing her I ran out and got her book. So I tried, but it just didn't work for me.

  3. I just finished Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (in fact, I posted my review just today) and loved it. Shanghai Girls will be read as soon as I can get my hands on it!

  4. I've never read See's work, but after meeting her in May, I'm really anxious to. I love books set in China.

  5. I'm looking forward to reading this one!

  6. Glad to hear this is a worthy sequel. I liked Shanghai Girls as well.

  7. I have not read the first book yet. I love your in-depth reviews!

  8. I haven't read Shanghai Girls yet, but I hope too!

  9. I still haven't read Shanghai Girls yet (bought it on holiday, never got to it), but I really must!

  10. I just love Lisa See and I am reading Dreams of Joy right now. It is definitely interesting to see how communism was put into place over there.

  11. I did read Shanghai Girls, but was not overwhelmed. Reading this review is nice, I got to read what happened next. And that is awesome! Thanks.

  12. I haven't read any of these yet but I plan to, especially after reading your review.

  13. I have not read Shanghai Girls yet (just Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) but it is nice to know that the story continues so when I finish Shanghai Girls, I can move right on to this one. Sometimes it pays to wait on reading a book -- you get the sequel right away instead of having to wait. Great comprehensive review.

  14. Thank you for this very thoughtful review! Dreams of Joy was one of the books I packed for my vacation but never had a chance to read it. I loved Shanghai Girls, so I can't wait to revisit these characters. And I know so little about Mao that I'm sure I'll learn something.