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.

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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).

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See.

Having loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I had to grab Dreams of Joy as soon as I saw it.

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Joy is the 19-year-old daughter of Chinese Immigrants in America. Her world has just been turned upside down. She has just learnt that the her mother was actually her aunt, and the person she calls her aunt was actually her birth mother. Her father, or the person she knew as her father has just passed away. The people who she trusted the most, seemed to have harbored secrets from her, all her life.  The world as she knew it has just ended.

Confused and driven by her idea of China, Joy grabs some money her mother has set aside and runs away to China. Enamoured by the idea of New China, completely taken in by everything she read, she wants to head to China and be part of the building of New China. Undeterred by everybody who warns her that the reality is far from what she has heard, she is convinced that Chairman Mao is the saviour that China is waiting for. She also has a personal motive, she wants to find her birth father, the famous artist Z. G. Li.

So off she goes, full of optimism and excitement, convinced that she is going to be part of something historic. For her, Socialism seemed to be the answer to all evils.  Reaching China, she realizes how different things are from the life she left behind, but far from pining away for the luxuries and life that she left behind, she throws herself into her new life. She sees only the positives. Every hardship , is taken as a blessing.

Back in America, when her mother Pearl realizes that her daughter has reached China, there was only one thing for her to do. Follow Joy to China. She knew she had to go there and ensure that her daughter is safe, and bring her back, if she can. Pearl and Joy’s separate journeys meet in China. Pearl goes through trails of her own, face demons from her past, make peace with conflicting emotions within her, try to learn the new language that she needs to speak, for Joy to hear her. She realizes that she needs to build bridges and trust with her daughter, all over again. Pearl comes to realize that all she can do is support her daughter, no matter how much it hurts her to see the decisions her daughter takes, and wait and hope that Joy understands why her mother is so worried about her.

Both Joy and Pearl live through tragic and difficult circumstances in China. China during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ is portrayed and it is heart breaking to read some of the stuff. The schemes that were launched, the cruelty that people endured, and the class difference that still existed in the society despite what socialism promised them. There are times when I wished Joy wouldn’t be so blind to what was really going on. But for a young person, full of a purpose, the excitement, the joy of being part of something so big, it might be easy to not see the whole picture. I wish I could say more without giving away the whole story, but I can’t. So I will just say, read it. It is a book worth reading.

As I read it, I realized that it was the second part of a series, but it was quite easy to connect the dots and get the story. Lisa See has obviously done a lot of research to write this book. She brings Shanghai and the countryside where Joy lived to life. We live the life that they lived while we read the book. All the characters are beautifully defined, and very believable. The ending ties up very well with the rest of the book. I am definitely going to find ‘Shanghai Girls’, the prequel to this book, even though I know what happened in the end, it would be an interesting read, I think. Again a historical fiction, which brought to life, an era, in a country that I knew little about.

I would give 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 and Flipkart(India).

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I have learnt that I can trust TGND‘s recommendations about books completely. I am yet to be disappointed by any of the books she recommended. So when I read her review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I just had to read it. It seemed just my type of book.

As I started to read it, things seemed familiar. I remembered bits and pieces, until the realization dawned that I had read it earlier, but the wonderful read that it is, re-reading it was a pleasure.

Set in nineteenth Century China, Lily recounts her story. Lily was a young girl growing up in a poor farmer’s household in rural China. Lily and her cousin Beautiful Moon turned six, and it was time for them to get their foot bound. Their families called the local diviner to find an auspicious date to start the foot bindings. The diviner, however, saw something different in Lily. He conferred with Matchmaker Wang, the matchmaker from the best village Tongkou, who agreed with him that Lilly had potential to make a very good match in Tongkou. Not only that she could also be eligible for a Laotong relationship. Laotong relationships are extremely special and not every girl gets to have a Laotong pair. It is a lifelong relationship with another girl, and it is extremely special because the girls are paired at the age of six or seven and are together for life. Most other girls have sworn sisterhood, that disolves upon marriage, and then they have to make new post marriage sworn sisters. For Lily to have a Laotong sister was extremely special as people in their village were usually not eligible. However, Lily’s feet had the potential to be perfect ‘golden lilies’ and that made her very special. Those days, all girls would have their foot bound, and based on how perfectly their foot turned out(how small, and how beautifully shaped), would determine the kind of match they would make. Lily’s feet showed great potential.

At seven, Lily’s feet were bound and soon, she and Snow Flower got bound in a Laotong relationship. All through her short life, Lily had yearned to be loved. So far she had just been a ‘useless branch’ in her family. For girls were of no use – ‘A road made for others to use’. From Snow Flower, she got the love that she yearned for. The girls grew up together, sharing their lives, and noting down the important events of their life on their secret fan, in the special women’s secret writing – Nu Shu.

Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship carried on strong, they face family tragedies together, get married, get busy with their everyday life, until something happened to put an abrupt end to the friendship that was supposed to be lifelong.

A touching, sad and brave tale of how women’s lives in nineteenth Century China was. Unwanted, useless, and born to serve others, put through torturous procedures like foot-binding, all to make a good marriage – because that was the most important part of a woman’s life – getting married. It is a window to an old culture where women had to stoically bear what was thrown their way. Rebelling was not an option. Living through droughts, political uprisings, domestic abuse and yet bringing beauty into their own and their loved ones lives. The description of the foot-binding process is heart-breaking to read. I can’t imagine how women went through it for so many years.

It is a must-read. I would definitely recommend this book. And thanks TGND for giving me a chance to re-read it 🙂