Friday, October 16, 2009

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Having never read any of Lisa See's books, I wasn't sure what to expect.  I finished this one earlier this week, but had to let it settle before I could decide how I felt about it.  I have purposely not read other reviews, although one of my online books buds at LT said she hadn't read the book yet because the reviews had been mixed.

Normally I try to describe the characters, the setting, enough of the plot to spark an interest and then comment on how I liked (or didn't like the book).

The characters: May and Pearl are sisters born in Shanghai who were raised by parents much more liberal and open-minded about the role of women than their ancestors.  Although their mother suffers from having had her feet bound as an infant, the girls are able to wear high heels, work as models, go to nightclubs, keep the money they earned (they gave it to their father to 'invest' for them) and generally enjoy the good life.  However, the father turns out to have gambled the family's money away, and to pay off his debts to the Chinese mafia, he arranges marriages for his daughters to Chinese living in America, something their mother had promised would never happen.

The setting: We are treated to a very realistic description of Shanghai (I've seen it described as the Paris of the Orient) in the 1930's.  Then once the Japanese invade China, we see the Chinese countryside with all its poverty and desperation and we must endure the horrors visited upon the Chinese by their invaders. Then we are transported to Angel's Island off the coast of California, where the sisters are incarcerated for almost a year waiting to be believed that they are in fact married to American citizens.  The Angel's Island scenes are evokative of a combination of Ellis Island and concentration camps, and while they can be depressing, they are enobling in the scenes of women taking care of each other. After their release from Angel's Island, the sisters settle with their husbands' family (they married brothers) in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles.

From here the book is devoted to a description of the Chinese immigrants who live in America and who are divided into the group who longs to return to 'the old country' and those who want to assimilate into American life and wants their children to have a better life (AKA The american Dream).  As the anti-communist campaign in American heats up in the 1950's, we see the results of secrets kept, lies told, papers lost, and dreams shattered.  The constant conflict between the old and the new, the wish to honor one's past and one's ancestors, and still belong to the present makes this a compelling story.

I enjoyed this book, I learned a lot about many subjects where I knew very little, and I developed an appreciation for the trials of all immigrants- legal and illegal.  I wish the ending had been different, (can't say anymore without a spoiler) but I was left with the thought that there may be room for a sequel.  That way one could see the ending here as the precursor to a new beginning and that's what immigration and settlement in a new country are all about.

I 'read' this book as an audio- it was a download from the public library's Overdrive database.


  1. Thanks for stopping by my blog the other day to commerorate NE Bloggers reaching 100 members. I read Shangai Girls a while ago and I liked it. I didn't love it. Lisa See's other book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, was a fabulous book and I enjoyed it much more that Shanghai Girls. If you have a chance, you might want to give it a try. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

  2. I liked this book as well, but you MUST read Snowflower and the Secret's even better :)

  3. I think most reviews I saw of this were not as positive. Glad you liked it.

  4. Sounds like one that's worth reading if I didn't already have way to many books ahead of it. Maybe some day.

  5. Very disappointed by the ending as well... thanks for the review.


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