Pearl and May are sisters in Shanghai in 1937. They have broken the shackles of their traditional upbringing, and are working as “beautiful girls” — models for posters and calendars — work that earns them money for their carefree lifestyle. But all this comes to an end when their father tells them he has gambled their money away and has sold them as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find traditional Chinese brides. As Japanese soldiers enter their city, Pearl and May sail for a new country, a new family, and a new life.
Words cannot express how meh I feel about this novel. It’s narrated by Pearl, the older sister, and about halfway through the novel I thought that perhaps Lisa See had made a list of every horrible event that can happen to a woman (brutal rape, see a friend decapitated in front of her, lose a child, be sold to an unknown husband, ugly experience of racism, etc. etc.) and was simply running down the list. Despite the horrors Pearl experiences, the narrative tone is flat and unemphatic. While this could be meant to imply that Pearl has been so emotionally damaged by her experiences that she has nothing left to give, it didn’t have that effect on me; rather, it felt as if she were listing experiences without any significant meaning to her. Ho-hum, my mother-in-law sat down and died; yawn, I was turned down for housing because of my hair and eyes, that sort of thing. Pearl herself is also consistently racist toward the Japanese, who have invaded her country; she calls them “monkey people” throughout the book. To be honest, it made me wonder how much more time I had to spend in her company.
Lisa See has obviously done a lot of research for this novel. It delves into immigration through Angel Island in the 1930s, and how “paper sons” could dodge questions of citizenship for years, until the Communist witch-hunt in the 1950s. There is a lot of interesting cultural material here, particularly about the history of the two Chinatowns of Los Angeles, and the way naturalized Chinese citizens made a life in a United States that was not completely ready to welcome them. But See doesn’t dive into the complexities of exile, or the possibility of mixed feelings about becoming American when your heritage is Chinese. People are right or wrong in this book, and it got quite tedious. The writing wasn’t terrible, and the history was interesting, but the people were pretty flat.
I read this book because a friend of mine pressed it on me, insisting I’d love it. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to love it, and I didn’t, but I didn’t hate it either. Meh. Does anyone else love Lisa See? Did I hit a bad one of hers?