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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.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 2.
- Review Date: 2009-03-23
- Reviewer: Staff
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)
Another cultural offering from Lisa See
Lisa See’s previous work has highlighted the lives of women in China from the 17th century to the present. Her latest novel, Shanghai Girls, opens in 1937 Shanghai, then shifts to the U.S., where See focuses her unique lens on the poverty and prejudice experienced by Chinese Americans until the late 1950s.
Pearl and May Chin, 21 and 18 years old, are working as models in Shanghai when their lives are dramatically uprooted: their father’s gambling debts have forced him to sell them into marriage to Chinese-American husbands. As they plan to elude this unacceptable fate, Japanese bombs begin falling on Shanghai; in their attempt to escape, Pearl is brutally raped by soldiers and hospitalized.
Their misfortunes continue after landing at Angel Island (“the Ellis Island of the West”), where the sisters are interrogated for months. Pearl realizes they are hopelessly stranded: “China is lost to the Japanese, May’s pregnant, and we have no money and no family.” The only officially married woman of the two, Pearl takes May’s place as mother of Joy, the baby born shortly before they leave for Los Angeles to meet their husbands. See astutely blends the struggle of this extended family with actual historical events: their attempts at distinguishing themselves as non-Japanese during the war, their reactions from afar as the Red Army pushes across China and the ensuing McCarthy-era bids at labeling them Communists.
Throughout her compelling family saga, See underlines the importance of ancient traditions for her characters, especially Pearl, whose mother-in-law instills “Chinese” into her “as surely as the flavor of ginger seeps into soup.” When Joy returns from her first college year in 1956 calling her family “wrong and backward,” it is Pearl who reacts most strongly, while May is the one who has adapted L.A.’s Hollywood mores quite easily. But as the novel ends, May tells Pearl, “Whenever our hair is white, we’ll still have our sister love.”
Satisfying on so many levels, See’s latest is above all a confirmation of unbreakable family bonds, as two Shanghai girls survive seemingly insurmountable setbacks, both at home and abroad.
Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.