Pearl and May are modern women, living in the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai in the late 1930s. They come from an upper-middle-class home, are educated, and plan to marry for love. They are beautiful girls, which means they work as models for calendars and advertisements, and they dutifully hand over their earnings to their father for safekeeping.
All their beautiful-girl dreams are shattered on the day the Chinese mafia call in their father's gambling debts. Because he has lost the family's money, their father must make a deal: The sisters are to marry the sons of a rich merchant and move to Los Angeles.
The young women decide to defy their father, but when the Japanese attack Shanghai, they realize that they must leave their home after all. Pearl and May struggle to find the strength and resources to survive both the journey and life in the America.
The bulk of the novel takes place in Los Angeles, specifically in the artificially constructed China City and then in Chinatown, where the sisters' in-laws run a number of businesses from an antiques store to a restaurant. Through the story of Pearl and May, See recounts the plight of the twentieth-century Chinese immigrant to the United States while exploring just how far two sisters will go to protect each other, forget the mistakes of their past, and find a place in a world that doesn't want them.
In the middle years of the last century, southern California was hardly a haven for the Chinese, who were subject to racism at every turn. See presents the bigotry without editorializing but makes us aware so we can judge for ourselves.
The relationship between Pearl and May is hard to describe without giving away the plot. They each believe they are helping and protecting the other, but they are also full of resentment. The sisters have secrets and secret longings, and their failure to confide in and fully trust the other sometimes undermines their good intentions.
Although I loved See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, I did not love this novel. It was well written and historically accurate, but I did not feel as connected to Pearl and May as I was to the women in the earlier books. I do, however, recommend Shanghai Girls for those who are interested in the Chinese experience in America and anyone who is attracted to novels about sisters.
Janet Song narrated the unabridged audio edition (Random House). She does a wonderful job bringing the characters to life and handling the accents in a realistic way, without ever falling to parody.
Lisa See has a website where you can learn more about her and view a slide show that relates to Shanghai Girls.
Published by Random House, 2009
Challenges: 999, 100+
Source: Review copy (see review policy)