08 October 2009

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

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
ISBN-13: 9781400067114
Challenges: 999, 100+
YTD: 74
Source: Review copy (see review policy)
Rating: B−


Anonymous,  10/8/09, 7:58 AM  

I've seen some lackluster reviews for this one, especially when compared with See's other books. I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and I'll be reading Peony in Love in the next month or two. I'll eventually make it to this one too.

Unknown 10/8/09, 8:21 AM  

I often find by the 3rd or 4th novel the bloom is off the rose with some authors. They pour their hearts into their first works and don't have as much time to spend on their later novels.
Excellent review.

Margot 10/8/09, 9:57 AM  

Unfortunately, I haven't read any of See's books. I'm going to change that soon. I just finished re-reading Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club and I'm in to mood for another Chinese immigrant setting. Thanks for another honest review.

Julie P. 10/8/09, 10:01 AM  

I haven't read this one yet but I've heard from my friends that they liked this one better than PEONY IN LOVE.

Melody 10/8/09, 10:44 AM  

I've yet to read a Lisa See book, but I do have Peony in Love in my pile so I'll dive into that one before exploring the others.

Kailana 10/8/09, 11:19 AM  

It's too bad that you didn't love this book! I have owned it since it came out and still haven't read it, but I did enjoy her two previous novels!

Anna 10/8/09, 12:51 PM  

I haven't read anything by Lisa See yet, but this book is on my shelf. I've heard good things about her other novels, and as some other people have said, mixed reviews for this one. I'm looking forward to reading it regardless. Thanks for the review.

Diary of an Eccentric

Sandy Nawrot 10/8/09, 1:40 PM  

I could be wrong, as my memory is inconsistent, but I believe Matt from A Guy's Moleskin Notebook really like this one.

Cara Powers 10/8/09, 1:55 PM  

Oddly enough, your review actually makes me want to read this book. I had trouble identifying with the women in Snowflower and the Secret Fan.

serendipity_viv 10/8/09, 3:20 PM  

I hope to be reading Snow Flower and The Secret Fan this week. I have heard such good things about it.
Sorry to hear you didn't enjoy this one.

Darlene 10/8/09, 4:02 PM  

Too bad you didn't connect with this one as with the other two. I have all three on my shelf and really need to make time to read them.

Belle 10/8/09, 5:40 PM  

I haven't read anything by Lisa See yet. I think I'll start with one of her earlier ones, though.

Anonymous,  10/8/09, 7:36 PM  

I agree, I much prefer Snow Flower and Peony.

Alice 10/8/09, 11:22 PM  

Hi Beth, I've also loved See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love. I haven't read this one and is waiting for the paperback to be released. Thanks for the review!

Anonymous,  10/9/09, 1:13 AM  

I have read a lot of mixed reviews for this one, I'll go with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan first, haven't read that yet.

Jew Wishes 10/9/09, 1:28 PM  

Good review of a good book!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 10/9/09, 2:47 PM  

I haven't read this or PEONY, but it's hard to match/top SNOW FLOWER, that set the bar high, imho.

I had to laugh at myself ... reading too quickly I thought you wrote they turned over their EARRINGS to their father. And wondered, hmm, they get paid in jewelry?

Jenners 10/9/09, 7:56 PM  

I have "Snow Flower and Secret Fan" on my bookshelves waiting to be read ... seems like that is the one to start with by this author.

Michele 10/9/09, 8:36 PM  

I have yet to read a See novel. But I'm guessing that this probably shouldn't be my first one, eh?

Ana S. 10/10/09, 9:22 AM  

I've been meaning to read Lisa See, but like Michelle I think I'll start elsewhere.

bermudaonion 10/11/09, 8:32 PM  

Sorry this didn't meet your expectations of a Lisa See novel. I do enjoy reading about sisters and immigrant experiences, so I might enjoy this more than you did.

Jen - devourer of books 10/12/09, 1:35 PM  

I completely agree. I definitely enjoyed this book, but didn't love it like I did "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."

Jo-Jo 10/12/09, 2:05 PM  

I think I loved this one as much as Snow Flower, but on a different level...if that makes sense. lol
Thanks for the review.

Bonnie 10/12/09, 2:29 PM  

I have read both Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls and loved them both. Lisa See's novels are so rich in history, details and culture. I haven't read Peony in Love yet.

Thoughts of Joy 10/14/09, 10:32 AM  

I did love this one and am excited about the sequel. I liked it more than Snow Flower, and I have Peony in Love on my TBR Shelf and on my iPod. I think the iPod will win out. I'm looking forward to it.

S. Krishna 10/21/09, 10:13 AM  

I liked this novel but didn't love it, like I loved Peony in Love. I still haven't read Snow Flower!

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