Shanghai Girls (Review)

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Shanghai Girls
Lisa See, 2009
314 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January 2011
I confess: I've not always been a huge fan of Linda See; her novels, while engaging, have a tendency to spill over into bathos. Shanghai Girls is an exception—written with See's trademark readability, it has more restraint in the melodrama department.

Shanghai Girls, in fact, is a wonderful book, giving us two historical snapshots: first, of Chinese culture in the late 1930's, up to the onset of World War II; second, of the U.S. and what it looked and felt like to Chinese immigrants before and after the war. Neither offers a flattering picture—of China or America.

 

The book begins with two beautiful sisters, Pearl and May Chin, living a cosseted life in Shanghai, "the Paris of China." Their idyll of shopping, partying and dancing ends abruptly, however, when their father is forced by his gambling debts to sell the two off as brides to unseen grooms, the two sons of "Old Man Louie."

Missing the boat (literally) to the U.S., where they are to live with their new husbands, Pearl and May barely escape the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai. Eventually they make their way to Angel Island, a holding pen for Chinese immigrants in San Francisco Bay. One of the more disturbing parts of this story is the United States' treatment of its Asian immigrants. Even as late as the mid-20th century, for instance, Chinese could not own property.

The sisters' new father-in-law, while wealthy by Chinese standards, turns out to be a small-time shopkeeper in the U.S. So instead of the airy, spacious house filled with servants they'd been led to expect, the entire family crowds into a small dingy apartment.

It's under these tribulations that the story really takes off. The two young women develop into interesting characters as they rise to meet new challenges, make their way in a strange new world, and find their way in their strange new marriages. And, as in every sibling story, each represents a different, often competing, approach to life.

This is a super book club read—a fine historical novel with a well-paced plot and engaging characters. There is much to talk about!

See our Reading Guide for Shanghai Girls.

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