China Dolls, Lisa See, Random House, 2014, 376 pp
Summary from Goodreads:
In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco's exclusive "Oriental" nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco's Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?
This is Lisa See's latest novel. It came out in 2014 and I finally read it for a reading group. Except for one of her early mystery novels, I have read all her books. She has a style all her own; not flashy, not particularly literary, but sometimes a little heavy on the melodramatic. Her research is impeccable and if you want to know what life has been like for Chinese women over the centuries and for Chinese immigrants to America, she is a good and entertaining source.
China Dolls is set in San Francisco during WWII when Chinese entertainers could only perform in Chinese establishments. It follows three women who maintained a rocky and tumultuous friendship for decades beginning in 1938.
One of the women turns out to be Japanese but she is passing as Chinese and that fact is the source of much trouble during the war. Someone betrays her and she is sent to the camps. The mystery of the novel revolves around who her betrayer was.
What I liked about this one was the look into the prejudice against Asians as played out in the entertainment world. I had learned something about that in Nina Revoyr's The Age of Dreaming, though that book mostly covered the movie business. I also enjoyed the portrayal of female friendship, which as all women know, can be fraught with competition, jealousy, and shifting alliances.
Along with Isabel Allende's The Japanese Lover and Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, that makes three books I have read recently about WWII as it impacted Japanese people. I love learning history through the many perspectives given to a period due to the imagination/research formula employed by novelists.
(China Dolls is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)