Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

I read the the sequel to this book first, Dreams of Joy, reviewed here. Reading Dreams of Joy made me want to know what happened before. I did know the outline of what happened before, but I so wanted to know more about Joy’s mother and aunt.


It is 1937, and Shanghai is one of the most fashionable and smart places to be in. It is called the Paris of the East, and May and Pearl, two sisters are right there, living a life devoid of worries or problems. They come from a prosperous family, with plenty of household help to do everything for them. They are living a carefree life as ‘beautiful girls’, girls whose faces advertise all sorts of products, and are having the time of their life. Their comfortable lives come to a shocking end when one day, their father tells them that things have gone terribly wrong in his business and he has lost all their money. In a minute there lives have changed beyond their wildest dreams. The only way out of this mess was for them to get married to two men whose father was ready to waive off their father’s debts in exchange. Shocked and taken aback, the sisters initially try to find ways of wriggling out of their fate, only to realize that they have no other options.

Their husbands are Chinese men who were born in America but came to China to look for wives. The sisters now have to make their way to their husbands. The tale of the two sisters as they travel from China to America during the war torn times, facing horrors that would stay with them forever. It follows their lives in America, as each of them do whatever they have to make the most of what life hands them.

Pearl, is born the in Year of the Dragon, while May in the Year of the Sheep. May is the more flamboyant, pretty one, while Pearl, though pretty, is more sensible and responsible. Sisters, who are as close as they can be, while still having the kind of disagreements and petty envy that most siblings have. In addition to the normal things that siblings share, Pearl and May share something more, something that binds them as well as divides them, in equal measure. It is a touching and yet brave tale. I love the characters that Lisa See has etched so beautifully. Pearl with her insecurities, May with her casual and comparatively self absorbed approach to life. Narrated by Pearl, we mainly get Pearl’s perspective until towards the end, where we get a glimpse of May’s perspective. Beyond the sisters life, it also takes us through history. The time when Shanghai was a cultural hub before the socialist movement changed it all. The everyday lives and culture in China and their lives as immigrants in America. I was quite amazed by how strongly patriarchal Chinese society was/is. I knew it was, but it still is shocking to read stuff like that. I mean, if a child has to be named ‘hope for brother’, it says something about how people thought.

A beautiful story. A heart-wrenching story that leaves you drained at times. A book I enjoyed as much as I did the sequel. In fact, I think I might have enjoyed it more because I already know what is coming. The book ends in a rather abrupt place, and it is quite possible that it might some readers dissatisfied, or might send them straight to the sequel. For me, it was a wonderful read. I rate it a 4/5.

About the Author

Lisa See is a Chinese-American author. Her books include Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Dragon Bones, and On Gold Mountain. She was named the 2001 National Woman of the Year, by the Organization of Chinese American Women. She lives in Los Angeles.

This book is available from Amazon(UK) and FlipKart(India).

7 thoughts on “Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

  1. I didn’t read any more of Lisa See after Snow Flower And The Secret Fan. I think it’s high time I did.

    Shanghai Girls sounds fantastic, though a bit dark and depressing. I happen to have the book with me, and think I will read it soon. Great review!


  2. Hi, Hope you are well. My apologies for disappearing and not replying to your email. I will get back to you on that. In the meantime I wanted to share about a book, a sequel to the one that I read on your blog: “Do no let me go” is a sequel to “No child of mine” and it is quite gripping. Have you read it, if not try and read it. I think you will like it.


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