Shanghai Girls, Lisa See, Random House Inc, 2009, 309 pp
Here in Los Angeles, readers, especially female readers, have a possessive love for Lisa See. We feel she belongs to us, we come out in droves to her readings and book signings, and we buy her books so we can read and discuss them. In my various reading groups, w have discussed On Gold Mountain (1995); Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005) and Peony in Love (2007). Last month two of these groups discussed Shanghai Girls. It was generally loved.
Two main themes run through her writing: Chinese history and the plight of women in that history. So her books generate long, lively, sometimes passionate discussion. Shanghai Girls was no exception. It is blatantly a historical novel with two sisters taking center stage in the story.
Pearl Chin is twenty-one when the story opens in 1937 Shanghai and her younger sister May is her closest dearest companion. They are non-traditional Chinese daughters of a successful businessman and Mahjong playing mother, having the time of their lives as models for the Beautiful Girl calendars. They move about the city in stylish clothes and party late into the night.
When disaster strikes they lose just about everything except each other and though they disagree and fight against the arranged marriages they've been sold into by a father who gambled and lost his fortune, eventually they are forced by a vicious gangster and the Japanese invasion to sail for America.
Several gripping episodes make for intense reading: the escape from Shanghai and Japanese soldiers which fixes their relationship to each other; the many months of detention and interrogation at immigration in San Francisco during which they make a secret deal that will forever haunt them; and a devastating culmination to further oppression later in Los Angeles.
In her themes of sisterhood and the conflict between duty and desire, Lisa See has produced some of her deepest and most affecting emotional writing yet. I grew to care about the sisters, especially Pearl, even realizing how my role of eldest sister in my family marked my life and influenced some of my worst decisions. Despite some sections where the history took precedence over the characters, I was both enlightened and entertained.
(Shanghai Girls is available in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)