Shanghai Girls, Lisa See

Random House, 2009

This was a good story, but it took me too long to finish and I’m not likely to read its sequel. I was really excited to start it when I finally got it from the waitlist at the library, but even after I’d started it took about a hundred pages to get exciting. This just isn’t a plot-driven novel. It’s a “going through life” novel. Which is fine – but usually in books like this, you hope for higher-calibre writing…. While See is talented at timing plot twists and describing people and places, many of the emotional scenes lacked…well, emotion. And there were several places throughout the book that I felt went under explained. How did the Shanghai Girls move from living under the thumb of a vindictive and cruel father-in-law, to an atmosphere of familial harmony? They just did – years passed, and the relationship changed. This is just one example of See’s faith that the reader will blindly accept what she tells them, instead of being shown. Frankly, I’d rather be shown.

Now that I’ve bored you about the shortcomings in the writing, I’ll tell you the reasons this book also rocked. The story is told from the perspective of Pearl, the strong and studious older sister to the beautiful May. It’s 1930’s China, and the two work as ‘beautiful girls’ – they day’s version of a top model in stylish Shanghai.

Vintage poster featuring real Beautiful Girls

They’re spoiled upper-crust, but then disaster strikes and the sisters are soon forced from the country they love. They end up in America, in the Old Chinatown of L.A. Their lives are set against a backdrop of the second world war and the rise of Communism in their home country, where their hearts really belong. It’s historical fiction, but the historical details seem to float hazily in the background. Really, it’s more a story about relationships. The conveyance of these relationships isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough.

The great thing about Lisa See’s tales (I recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) is that you can tell she’s really into the material. She makes Chinese culture easy to understand, which is the most valuable thing I’ve gotten from her books.

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