Lisa See’s, Shanghai Girls, was published in 2009 and is 336 pages. I read it in preparation for the sequel, Dreams of Joy, which will be available on May 31st and because I loved See’s book, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Shanghai Girls is an epic, historical, family drama that spans twenty years (from 1937-1957) and moves from China to California. It traces the lives of two sisters, Pearl and May, their youth of privilege, and their tragic undoing.
When the novel begins, it is set against the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai, where Pearl and May have freedom, culture, and the world at their feet. Their lives are quickly shattered, however, when their father arranges marriages for the girls to help with his debts and improve his social standing. They marry Chinese men from America, but when the men return to the US expecting the girls on a future ship, Pearl and May decide not to go so they may continue their lives in Shanghai.
After a brutal attack by the Japanese on the city and the disappearance of their father, Pearl and May are forced to find a way to travel to America and fulfill their marriage promises, but brutalities they face on their harrowing journey nearly kill the women in body and in spirit.
Shanghai Girls is a fascinating look at Chinese culture and politics in the early twentieth century. I was surprised and interested by many things I learned in the book. The escape from China was incredibly graphic and difficult to read, but it was worth enduring to get to the rest of the saga.
Like See’s previous novels, Shanghai Girls explores the complexity and depth of female relationships, and that is the strength of her writing. Decisions the characters make are never easy, but always consistent with their personalities. See has a way of making even the most unlikeable characters sympathetic, and the strongest characters vulnerable.
I look forward to reading Dreams of Joy, and recommend this book.