Shanghai Girls

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?

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17 Responses to Shanghai Girls

  1. Deb says:

    I had exactly the same response to See’s SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN and PEONY IN LOVE (which I think I listed to as an audiobook–perhaps my husband was listening to it as we drove somewhere–although it doesn’t seem his style–because I can’t imagine voluntarily seeking it out after my underwhelming response to my first See book). It’s obvious that she’s done a lot of research into her subjects, but everything is presented in such a flat way: “Such-and-such happened and the heroine cried.” “Someone stole something and the character feels angry.” But there’s nothing in her writing style that makes me KNOW the character is feeling. Yeah, a big “meh” from me too.

    I lived in Los Angeles for 20 years and used to read Lisa See’s mother Carolyn See’s column in the L.A. Times. I think mom’s a better writer.

    • Jenny says:

      That’s well-put, that she told me she was feeling something, but I never knew she was feeling it. I was comparing it (totally unfairly) to a brilliant scene in Nabokov’s Pnin, where a character has a narrow escape with a punchbowl and the reader is left completely wrung-out with emotion without having been told a single thing.

  2. Lisa says:

    My book group has read several of her novels and loved them all. I didn’t make it though even one of them – though that was due as much to an unpleasantly detailed description of foot-binding as to a general lack of interest in the story & characters.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, there was gross foot-binding description in this one, too. That wasn’t what put me off so much as the flat characterization and sense of exploitation. Oh, and the general sense that there wasn’t much depth to some of the extremely complex issues.

  3. alenaslife says:

    I think I liked this book more than you, but I know what you mean about the characters’ voiced eing somewhat flat. I was more of a Snow Flower and Peony in Love fan myself. Surprisingly I was introduced to her through a piece of non-fiction, On Gold Mountain, which traces her familiy’s immigration to San Francisco. I am a lover of historical fiction, so I really enjoy the detailed research of her books.

    • Jenny says:

      The detailed research was what made it worth while for me. I like knowing what characters eat and what things smell like. I enjoyed the historical part of it quite a bit.

  4. Jeanne says:

    The first Lisa See book I read, I liked (Snow Flower). The second one was Shanghai Girls which I liked less well, but found some nice things in it. ( And then I read Peony in Love, which I didn’t like at all. It seems like the odds of liking any of her books after that one are almost nil.

    • Jenny says:

      What a lovely and generous review! And how cool that her sister showed up! Some of the things you liked about that book, I found simplistic — her berating herself for not attaching herself to a new country, for instance. Well, you wouldn’t, would you? Feelings about a new country when you’ve been stolen from your old one are bound to be extremely complex, and fear and hatred are just as valid as optimism and joy. Same with sharing a daughter with your sister. Adoption issues are incredibly difficult. This book just did not do it for me.

  5. aparatchick says:

    I read On Gold Mountain, her non-fiction book about her family, before I read any of her novels. I enjoyed it, and I liked Snow Flower, but her other books have not made much of an impression on me.

    • Jenny says:

      It strikes me that a non-fiction book, that was all history, would keep all the parts I liked about this book and get rid of the parts I didn’t.

  6. This is a talented author IMO — I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by her, including this one.

    SUch a nice review –thanks once again.

  7. Christy says:

    I kept seeing reviews of this one around, but it did seem like it would be a ‘meh’ book for me if I tried it. Although I do have Snow Flower and the Secret Fan on my to-read list somewhere. It’s cool that Angel Island is pulled into the story. In my visit to San Francisco last year, the tour of Angel Island was very informative. It’s also a pretty island and I’d like to have spent more time on it.

    • Jenny says:

      I haven’t been to Angel Island yet, but I’d love to go. Ellis Island is my favorite thing I’ve ever done in New York, and I’d be fascinated to see the other coast’s version.

  8. Bybee says:

    It was pretty flat until that last chapter then it went full speed ahead. Jarring.

  9. boardinginmyforties says:

    This one seems to polarize people a bit. I’m not sure what I might think of it but as you’ve described it in your review it would most likely be a “meh” for me too!

  10. Kimberly Phoenix says:

    I am about 1/4 of a way through this long tedious book and so far I think your review is spot on. I keep wondering if I want to finish the book or find a new one to read. I like historical fiction books and love books about Africa and Asia. Loved the good earth and memories of a geisha. So thought I would like this too. Not so sure. Meh pretty much sums it up.

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