Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Title: Shanghai Girls
Author: Lisa See
ISBN: 9781400067114, Random House, 2009
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: B+

First Line: "Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks," my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him.

Lisa See is a master of immersing her readers in a time and a culture completely different from their own. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was one of my top reads the year that I read it, and I couldn't wait to begin reading See's latest.

The 1930s are drawing to a close. Two sisters, Pearl and May, enjoy their lifestyle. They are "calendar girls"--what we would call models. Their faces sell dozens of different products. They wear the latest Western fashions. They party late. They like to ignore their rich parents. If a ceiling fan disappears or a few servants seem to have gone missing, Pearl and Mae pay little attention. They are young, beautiful, and they live in Shanghai--the Paris of Asia.

Their world falls to pieces when they learn that their father has gambled away his wealth and sold them as brides to two Chinese brothers living in California in order to clear his debts. They throw away their tickets to Los Angeles and go on modeling and going to parties, learning too late that their behavior cost them their chance to flee the invading Japanese. Going through hell to escape Shanghai, they make their way to California only to be kept at Angel Island--the Ellis Island of the West Coast of the United States. The next twenty years will bring many changes to their lives.

In so many ways, this book succeeds brilliantly. The author took my imagination straight to the streets of Shanghai and into the lives of two very young and selfish girls who can step over the body of a dead baby in the street on their way to a party, neither of them seeing anything wrong. This is one of the things I love about See's writing: the way she matter-of-factly opens my eyes to a totally alien culture.

The Japanese invasion of Shanghai was vivid, as was the two sisters' escape from the city. The endless months they were forced to spend on Angel Island made me a bit stir crazy, and Pearl's life in Los Angeles was depressing to the extreme.

Where the book failed for me was in the characterizations. I don't care for books in which all the male characters are depicted as lazy, stupid, weak, ego maniacal or just plain evil. Pearl's husband Sam was the sole decent male in the entire lot, and even he had his moments of weakness.

I also have to admit that I found the two main characters, May and Pearl, to be extremely irritating. May is the one who thinks only of herself. As long as she's being complimented and has plenty of pretty clothes to wear and fancy transportation, she's fit to live with. If those things don't happen, she's a pain in the neck. Pearl, on the other hand, is the classic martyr-- always sublimating herself in order to kowtow to what everyone else wants--and being oh so brave about it the entire time.

The ending of the book was rather abrupt. Almost a classic cliffhanger involving Pearl's spoiled daughter. It will be interesting to see if this does set up a sequel.

You may wonder why I still gave this book such a good rating. Such is the power of Lisa See's writing. Her depiction of Shanghai and Los Angeles during that time period and her description of culture in both Shanghai and the Chinatown of Los Angeles are so powerful that I can forget about wanting to shake some sense into both May and Pearl.

I am a character-driven reader. It is very seldom that I'm able to rate a book highly when I don't care for any of the people in it. In the case of Shanghai Girls, I think of the streets of Shanghai, the sights, the smells, bombs exploding, working in the shops of Chinatown in Los Angeles...the vivid canvas See painted is what I think of, not Pearl and May.

Get a Second Opinion


  1. I do tend to be character driven too, so I guess I too should read it for the smells of Shanghai :)

  2. I just finished this book myself and I sort of agree about the characters. I could see how both women had their problems, but it frustrated me that May took the high road and insisted that Pearl had it easy when neither of them ever had it easy.

    I loved the book when the characters were in Shanghai. I found the culture there to be fascinating and the characters more within their element. I liked it less when they were in America.

  3. I am looking forward to this one, even if it isn't quite the same as the earlier See books. Great review.

  4. I'm looking forward to this one too - I hope I can overlook the irritating characters!

  5. I've got The Snow Flower and The Secret Fan here, so I guess I should read that first. Great review though!

  6. Hi! I just happened upon your blog and am enjoying it immensely! I am also an avid reader and perhaps what caught my attention first was your reader bill of rights...do we REALLY have the right to stop reading a book we don't like? :) I've always had a problem with that one, I always feel obligated once I've opened the cover...

    Anyway, I find your insights thought provoking on how a really devoted reader processes and thinks about the books she reads. As a writer, I tend to be swept away by words and characters and often not analyze what worked and didn't. Interesting!

    I will come back to hear your best picks!


  7. This is one of the best reviews of this book that I've read, Cathy. I've been on the fence about it. I think I would like the Shanghai part, not so sure about the part in America, and I find it tough to keep reading, too, if I don't like the characters.

  8. I just don't think I would enjoy this one. It doesn't really appeal to me :(

  9. Blodeuedd--Not many writers can appeal to a reader's olfactory sense! :)

    Meghan--Although I preferred the scenes in Shanghai, too, I did enjoy the Los Angeles Chinatown segments. I've driven or walked through a few American cities' Chinatowns, and I felt See gave me a feeling of what it was like to live in them during that time period.


    Kathy--You may not find them irritating!

    Jackie--By all means, read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It's a marvelous book!

    Johanna--I'm glad you're enjoying my blog. Thanks so much for stopping by! Of course we have the right to stop reading a book we don't like! ;) I used to have a similar problem, but I must be getting old and cranky because it's a problem no more. Reading time is precious. Why waste it on a book you're not enjoying?

    As far as my best picks...I have a tab up at the top, "2009 A+ Reads", that will show you the books I've loved the most this year.

    Belle--Thank you. I preferred the Shanghai scenes, but found the American ones very interesting in their own way.

    Jen--That's perfectly all right. It would be rather boring if we all liked the same books!


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