Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

I read Lisa See's other historical novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, earlier this year and quickly became a fan of her detailed and personal writing style and intense character development. I also enjoyed learning so much about Chinese history and culture from her novels. So I reserved this book at the library before it even hit the shelves, and then I got to enjoy that "new book" smell and feel as the first one to check it out - what fun!

Shanghai Girls is historical fiction, but it deals with more modern ideas and the shaping of Chinese-American culture as opposed to ancient Chinese beliefs and traditions, which is to be expected since it is set in the 1930's to 1960's and over half the story takes place in California. I like old things, and it seems that modernity brings with it a more blatant acknowledgement of sin, which colors the novels even if its not flagrantly described. "The Old Chinese City still has temples and gardens, but the rest of Shanghai kneels before the gods of trade, wealth, industry, and sin" (12), and the same could be said for Los Angeles once the sisters Pearl and May arrive there, only the Chinese are mostly sequestered in China City or Chinatown trying to eke out enough to live and stay anonymous to the government.

It was interesting to read of the presence of Christian missionaries both in China and Chinatown, but somewhat sad to read of the way many Chinese used their services simply for personal advancement or to have the right political connections. The main character did become a "one-Goder," as the Chinese-Americans referred to Christians, but it seemed primarily a means of personal comfort as she added prayer to the old Chinese superstitions and religious practices.

There were certainly enlightening aspects of this novel, especially the scrutiny and fear under which the Chinese lived in America not so many decades ago. On the other hand, perhaps the close proximity to the time and culture made the character development not quite as rich or insightful as See's other novels. It seemed more like I was simply observing the events that unfolded around the characters rather than understanding how they thought or why they reacted in the ways they did. So for several reasons, this is probably my least favorite of the three See novels I have read, but it was still very interesting and a learning experience about another time, place, and life very unlike my own.

Like Lisa See's other historical novels, there is a distinctively tragic element to the plot, though not without moments of happiness. The main character, Pearl, is shaped by life events and petty jealousies with her sister May that lead to misunderstandings and mistakes, somewhat similar to the plot of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Apart from the history, it is a story about relationships, and how one's short-sightedness and selfishness can shape the course of one's life.

Finally, I thought the ending was a bit too abrupt - I was really surprised to turn the page and find Acknowledgements instead of another chapter. Maybe she has a sequel in mind...


Carrie said...

I haven't heard of this book yet but it sounds really fascinating and like something I would enjoy delving into! I'm so glad you reviewed it -thanks!

Thoughts of Joy said...

I saw an interview with her and thankfully, there is a sequel - she's writing it now. :)