Saturday, January 05, 2013

Review: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
Random House
May 2011
Format: Hardcover, 354 pages

First line: The wail of a police siren in the distance tears through my body.

From the inside cover: In her beloved New York Times bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and, most recently, Shanghai Girls, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the potent bonds of mother love, romantic love, and love of country. Now, in her most powerful novel yet, she returns to these timeless themes, continuing the story of sisters Pearl and May from Shanghai Girls, and Pearl’s strong-willed nineteen-year-old daughter, Joy.

Reeling from newly uncovered family secrets, and anger at her mother and aunt for keeping them from her, Joy runs away to Shanghai in early 1957 to find her birth father—the artist Z.G. Li, with whom both May and Pearl were once in love. Dazzled by him, and blinded by idealism and defiance, Joy throws herself into the New Society of Red China, heedless of the dangers in the communist regime.

Devastated by Joy’s flight and terrified for her safety, Pearl is determined to save her daughter, no matter the personal cost. From the crowded city to remote villages, Pearl confronts old demons and almost insurmountable challenges as she follows Joy, hoping for reconciliation. Yet even as Joy’s and Pearl’s separate journeys converge, one of the most tragic episodes in China’s history threatens their very lives.

Acclaimed for her richly drawn characters and vivid storytelling, Lisa See once again renders a family challenged by tragedy and time, yet ultimately united by the resilience of love.

My thoughts: I had the privilege of meeting Lisa See when she was touring after the release of this book. At the time I had only read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I loved. I had a few of her other books, but just hadn't had the time to read them. Since then, I have read Peony in Love and Shanghai Girls - both of which I really enjoyed.

Dreams of Joy is actually a continuation of the story told in Shanghai Girls. Joy, Pearl's daughter, has found out some family secrets that has her fleeing to China to find her biological father and become part of Mao's "Great Leap Forward." Being young and idealistic, she believes that everything is good in China, that everyone is helping to build a country the Chinese can be proud of. Once there, she soon becomes disillusioned, coming face to face with the harsh realities of life for the peasants. Pearl, once vowing never to return to China, flees there in search of Joy. Arriving in Shanghai, she quickly realizes it is not the Shanghai it was when she and May lived there so many years ago. Both women get caught up in the changes in China and it takes three years before Pearl is able to rescue her daughter from the commune. Their harrowing journey out of China was quite intense and I had a hard time putting the book down.

Told from both Joy and Pearl's point of view, the reader really gets a feel for how life was during Mao's reign. At the heart of the story, this is really a book about relationships within a family, and life in communist China during the "Great Leap Forward." The horrors that occurred in China during this time are quite unsettling - the starvation, programs like 'Swap Child, Make Food', and control through fear - they unfortunately are a memorable, yet haunting element throughout this book.

I always feel that I learn a lot about the Chinese culture when reading Lisa See's works - especially since this is an area I do not know much about. Her writing is so descriptive that you feel as if you are there with the character, that you are going through what they are going through.

Do you have an author that you go-to when you want to learn about a particular culture? Have you read any other authors that write about the Chinese culture? I'm always looking for recommendations!

(I purchased this book.)


  1. I read Shanghai Girls, and now want to read the sequel, thanks to your lovely review.

  2. I feel I must read the first one Shanghai Girls before getting to this one. Seems an insight into the culture of China as well.


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