I resisted reading Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan when it was all the buzz. I did eventually cave though and, surprising even myself, enjoyed it so much that I have since managed to buy or otherwise get my hands on everything Lisa See has written. So it was with great anticipation that I waited for my copy of Shanghai Girls to arrive in the mailbox. Solid premise, lovely cover, author on whom I totally have a crush. Thank heaven this lived up to the hype I created in my own head!
Pearl and May Chin live a modern, well-to-do life in Shanghai with their parents. They both pose for authors as "beautiful girls" who appear in calendars and product ads but their glamorous lives are about to change when they discover that their father has sold them as wives to two young men returned to China from America in order to pay his increasingly onerous debts. The girls are unwilling but have no choice despite the fact that Pearl is in love already and May is to be married to a boy not only not old enough for marriage but also not completely mentally sound. But instead of meeting their new husbands enroute to America as planned, the girls intentionally miss the boat, stranding themselves in a Shanghai about to be torn apart by war. As these formerly pampered girls move through China, trying desparately trying to find a way to go to America and join their previously despised husbands, they not only encounter hardships and horrors but their own personalities form and evolve, presaging their future relationships to each other and with others in their new "American" family. Once in America, bound by an immense secret, the sisters face the reality not only of their husbands' family but also the reality of being Chinese-American in the US.
See has evoked beautifully the isolation of the Chinese in Los Angeles and the racism that surrounded their secure enclave. She has created two characters who are flawed but sympathetic and very real. Pearl narrates the story and so it with her that the reader feels the most empathy but the final denouement shows that perhaps Pearl hasn't been the most reliable narrator when recounting her interactions with her sister through the years. There is much to pity in both women's lives and yet they both fought successfully for survival while staying honest to their passions. The characters of the husbands are not quite as well limned but that can be excused because of Pearl's point of view narration. I actually did happen to know a bit about this time in America's history and in our treatment of emigrants from the Far East but See's picture of the time reinforced all I had once learned. And since I suspect that many people aren't aware of this true history, it will be a fascinating (if shameful) lesson for most readers. The writing is crisp and lovely and the story is engaging. I liked this one very much. I'll definitely be reading more of Ms. See's work in the future.