Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

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

From the back cover: In 1937 Shanghai - the Paris of Asia - twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree - until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that to repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are - Shanghai girls.

My thoughts: I have come to really enjoy Lisa See's books. They are not fast reads by any means, but rather are the type of books that leave you knowing a little about a part of the world not too familiar and, at least for me, leave me wanting to know more. I always get completely engrossed in her writing and find that the stories stay with me long after I've read the last page. I first came across Lisa See when my book club picked Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to read, which I absolutely loved. I then had the opportunity to go see Lisa See when she was promoting her latest book, Dreams of Joy - she is an amazing speaker and I really enjoyed listening to all her stories. You can see my write-up of that talk here.

In Shanghai Girls, the setting of the novel is Shanghai in the 1930s and later the US. Lisa See paints a vivid portrait of life in pre-World War II Shanghai and takes the reader on an unforgettable journey through the Japanese invasion of China and its aftermath. It is a fascinating and intense look into life for the Chinese at the time of their war with Japan and their experiences with trying to fit in with the Americans.

Lisa See tells a beautifully crafted story of the struggles faced by the two women as they adjust to life with a new family and in a new country. It is a story about assimilation and trying to retain some of your ethnic identity. It is about family hardships that bind people closer together, or form bonds that were not previously there. It is about unconditional love for siblings and children that can be hurtful and unpleasant. This is a book that almost everyone can relate to, even if you have no Chinese ancestry, or it has been a dozen generations since anyone in your family was "FOB - Fresh off the boat".

I've been wanting to read this book for a while now, and am glad that I finally did. Now I can't wait to start Dreams of Joy which continues where Shanghai Girls leaves off.


  1. Excellent review! I love her work as well, and really enjoyed Shanghai Girls, even though there are some incredibly sad chapters.

  2. I've seen this book in the book sotres a couple times but never really got a sense for exactly what it was about. Now that I know, I'm definitely intrigued and might just have to pick it up the next time I see it.

  3. Thanks for the review. This is a period that I'm not familiar with although When we Were Orphans was set in Shanghai and that was one of my reads last year.


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