Thursday, May 15, 2014

Bookish Thoughts: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

"Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks," my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him. ~ Opening of Shanghai Girls



Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Random House, 2009
Fiction (Historical); 309 pgs

It has been years since I read my first Lisa See novel.  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of my all time favorite books.  I was excited when the online book group I participate in selected Shanghai Girls to read as the April selection.  I enjoy reading historical fiction and learning about and experiencing other cultures, even if for just a short while.  The novel begins in 1937, but spans decades as it tells the story of Pearl and her sister, May, and their family.

The two young women were used to the good life: parties, beautiful clothes, and late nights.  They worked as models and had much freedom.  That completely changed, however, when their father lost his wealth and, as part of his debt payment, arranged marriage for his daughters.  This, followed on its heels by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai which led to thousands of people trying to flee the city in order to find safety.  Suddenly they found themselves on the run, forced to live like the peasants they looked down on most of their lives.  The sisters, Pearl and May, find their way to the United States, but not without enduring great hardship and sacrifice along the way.  The life they find in their new country is not at all what they expected.  From grueling immigration interviews on Angel Island in San Francisco and the birth of a baby to working their fingers to the bones in Los Angeles and the fear of being sent back to a home that is no longer recognizable, they wonder if they will ever be free again.

The author put a lot of research into the novel and collected personal stories which she used throughout the book in various ways.  Lisa See covers so much history in the novel, much more than I will mention here.  I have to give props to the author for bringing the history of the times even more the forefront of the story by creating such a strong sense of place.

Lisa See did a good job building up to the attack of Shanghai by the Japanese, in addition to describing life in Shanghai up to that point.  The class differences were quite significant.

I remember studying about Angel Island in school.  It was a popular field trip spot, being not so far from where I was living when I was in elementary school. There was much I did not know though, and it was an eye opener to see just how difficult and frustrating the immigration process was for the Chinese.  My memory of my lessons about Angel Island center mostly around the island's use during the Second World War and the internment of the Japanese.

I was really drawn to the later portion of the book and the impact of McCarthy-ism on the Chinese. I can't even imagine how difficult it was to have to live through that, the constant fear of having to watch what one said and who one talked to, especially given the circumstances in China at that time in history.  Just seeing the shifts in how the Chinese were viewed and treated across the years based on the political climate changes was interesting.  I am always angered when I hear or read about discrimination and unfair treatment of any group of people.

Lisa See has a way with creating characters that I really come to care about, and in Shanghai Girls it was no different.  Each of her characters is well developed, deep in back story, even the more minor characters. Each one of the characters found a place in my heart.  They felt so real.

I most related to Pearl. It could be because she was the narrator, I suppose, but I honestly felt like she was more how I would be in her situation--the responsible one. The thinker. The reliable one. She did not think much of herself, but she always stepped up when something needed to be done.

Her sister, May, by contrast, is more of a risk taker and often puts her own needs and desires ahead of others.  I occasionally found myself getting exasperated with May, just as her sister did, but I saw an underlying strength in May.  She always came through when she had to and had her own share of burdens and obstacles to overcome.

I especially liked the relationship between the two sisters, how they played off each other.  Lisa See captured the way two people grow not only with each other, but also against each other, bumping into each other, and grow apart.  The two sisters did not always agree, had much conflict in some areas and saw life very differently, but their bond as sisters and friends helped them survive in their darkest of moments.  How the two sisters related to the world around them and each other was a good reminder of how differently each of us perceives our lives, even when experiencing the same moments.  Ultimately, I think the two sisters complimented each other.

Of the other characters, I most loved Sam, Pearl's husband.  His back story touched me, and was a good example of class struggles among the Chinese during that time period.  It was also through his story that I learned about Paper Sons and Paper Wives, and how tenuous their place was in the United States.

I felt sorry for Vern, May's husband--it was obvious something was wrong with him from the start. He seemed to have a good heart though, but he definitely had developmental and health issues that contributed to his inability to take on more adult responsibilities.  There was also Father Louie, Vern's father whose character I did not like too much at first but grew to like as time went on as his story became more clear.  He could be gruff and condescending, but in the end he showed a different side to him and it was easier to see where he was coming from. His wife, Yen-Yen grew on me as the story went as well. I wasn't sure what to think of her at first, but the more I got to know her, the more I liked and respected her.

Then there is Joy, the daughter.  There really isn't much to her character throughout the novel.  The focus is more on Pearl and May, and how they parent her.  Towards the end of the book, when Joy is grown enough to go off to college, the reader gets to see more of her, especially in terms of her interactions with her family. Here again, the author does an excellent job of examining relationships between her character, this time between parent and child, including generational issues, the impact secrets can have, and just about finding one's one path.

There were some shocking and heart wrenching scenes in Shanghai Girls, one of which had me in tears (why did I have to be in a public place when reading that scene?!  I'm going to cry just thinking about it again).  All of these scenes made this mother's heart ache.  

As for the ending, when I got there, I suddenly understood why everyone had been complaining about it when the book first came out. It wasn't much of an ending at all, I thought, but rather a huge cliffhanger leading into the next book, Dreams of Joy. Maybe I don't mind so much because I know there is a next book. I don't mind cliffhangers in that case. As an ending by itself though, I would have been disappointed had I not known that. I don't mind ambiguous endings to some degree, but I do like some closure. So much was left unresolved in Shanghai Girls. But, oh, what a great book!

Rating:  * (Very Good)

You can learn more about Lisa See and her books on the author's website.

Source: I purchased an e-copy of Shanghai Girls for my own reading pleasure.
  

© 2014, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

22 comments:

  1. I've heard so much great things about Lisa See's books, yet I've read none of them. Need to remedy that!

    I don't mind cliffhanger at the end of the book, knowing if there's to be a sequel. But I'd be terribly upset if there's such an ending without further explanations and there's no sequel to it.

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    1. Melody - Oh, I hope you do give her books a try!

      I feel the same way about cliffhangers. If I know there's a sequel, I'm more accepting of them. :-)

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  2. I just read (or listened to, rather) this book a month or two ago. I liked it better than I did Snow Flower. I am not sure why except maybe I felt more connected to the characters in this book. I saw myself in both Pearl and May. Sometimes I felt May was being irresponsible, sometimes I felt Pearl was not giving May a chance before writing her off. I never thought of what you said - about her creating such a good sense of place - she really did. I was attracted to the McCarthyism reactions to the Chinese as well. And Angel Island, which I never really knew much about. I knew there were internment camps and such but not much more than that. It was a great read and I really liked the narrator, too, if you ever want to listen to the book. :)

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    1. Becca - Both characters were very relatable and so I understand what you mean. I agree with you about May being irresponsible at times. I had to remind myself just how much she had sacrificed too.

      I will have to give the audio book a try. I think I'd enjoy revisiting this story at some point. Thank you for the recommendation!

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  3. It's been years since I read Snow Flower. That is one of my favorite books as well. I have two of her books at home, but haven't made the time to read them yet.

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    1. Athira - I have no good excuse for waiting so long to read another book by Lisa See, other than fear I wouldn't like the second one as much as I did the first I read by her.

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  4. I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan so I want to read more of See's work. Thanks for the warning about the ending.

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    1. Kathy - Just make sure you have Dreams of Joy on hand after you finish Shanghai Girls and you should be okay. :-)

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  5. I've never read any books by Lisa See. I enjoy historical fiction, but it tends not to be at the top of my TBR list. I really should read both Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls. I studied Asian American history heavily in college.

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    1. A.M.B. - I really enjoy historical fiction, but it's often not the first type of book I will pick up to read--and then when I do read a historical fiction novel, I'm always kicking myself for not making it a priority to read more. I do recommend Lisa See's books if you get a chance to read them.

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  6. I've never read any of Lisa See's work but I've had Shanghai Girls on my shelf for years and have just never gotten around to it. Even though Asian American history has never been something that really grabbed me this sounds very interesting. I'll have to add it to my summer TBR.

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    1. Katherine - My copy had been on my shelf for a long while too. :-( I hope you do get a chance to read it and enjoy it if you do!

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  7. I agree, this is a fantastic book. I actually liked it better than Snow Flower, and Dreams of Joy is just as good :)

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    1. Sam - I can't wait to read Dreams of Joy. I hope to pick that one up soon.

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  8. I don't like cliff hangers but I already have this book somewhere in the house. I've been meaning to read it but you know how it goes :)

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    1. Violet - Just make sure you get a copy of Dreams of Joy to follow it up with. :-)

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  9. I really need to read this one. Not just because of the McCarthy connection, which does interest me, but also because of the immigrant experience. I had not heard of Angel Island and think I need to investigate that gateway to America.

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    1. Jenclair - Those elements really interested me as well. I think you might enjoy this one--just be prepared for the cliffhanger at the end.

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  10. This was one of my favourites last year, yet already I remember so little (it's scary!) I think because I knew I'd have to get Dreams of Joy afterwards (though I haven't yet) I suppose I was expecting the cliff hanger, but it's always nice when a book is more finished. Otherwise, yes, fantastic book, and so full of history and no holding back on it.

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    1. Charlie - I still haven't managed to get to Dreams of Joy. Hopefully within the next couple months. Shanghai Girls really didn't have an ending at all, did it? Some cliffhangers at least give you some closure.

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  11. I really enjoyed this book. My husband and I went to SF not long after I read it and went to Angel Island. The whole history of it was fascinating to me.

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    1. Rachel - I find the history fascinating too. I'd like to revisit there someday--and experience it from an adult's perspective.

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