Review: Shanghai Girls (Lisa See)

I’m going to start out that there are sections of these 2 books which are 5/5 stars and parts that are 2/5.  So an average would be about 3.5/5 score between them, but they can be a bit of a wrestle.

These books span about 20-25 years, focusing on Pearl Chin, her sister May, and her daughter Joy.  In the first book we spend 100% in Pearl’s head.   In the second book we split pretty much 50/50 between Pearl & Joy.

  • I didn’t like these characters much.  None of these women.
  • The plot had strange ways in which it did-but-didn’t-quite follow the traditional cycle of rising and falling action.
  • The world building and research Lisa See put into these novels was phenomenal.

The lack of strong judgement on the potentially explosive politics around issues like the Chinese Exclusion Act, WWII Japanese internment camps, and Moaism/Communism as it impacted Chinese-Americans is actually quite impressive.  She mentions these issues but manages to never sound preachy. (It is really difficult to look at the abuses of power in Moaism, the control of communication, art, etc. from an American perspective NOT get a little dumbfounded.)

Shanghai Girls (book1 of the series) focuses on the relationship (and 20 years of animosity) between Pearl & May. There are secrets (god the secrets) which is one of the core elements of the books.  The lies the sisters tell themselves, each other, and the outside world… I can’t imagine living like that. It drives a huge wedge into every relationship they have.

Lisa See occasionally has Pearl say something like “a good Chinese doesn’t tell others…” and then whatever lie Pearl is about to tell is somehow justified.  I began to wince every time Pearl said it in the first book (she was worse there) because I knew things were about to be bad. Joy does the same shit only through stupidity instead of choice.

Seriously, if your mother and father tell you “you don’t want to do marry him – he lives in a shithole” and you’ve never seen his shithole, maybe you should go look at it before you marry him? Just maybe? Understand where he comes from by like having a conversation with his parents instead of just amusing yourself with romantic stories of who you think they are?!?! Maybe ask him what he wants in 5 years or 10 years and make sure you want remotely the same things in life? Even writing this review, I have to stop and take a deep breath and remind myself that Joy was 20 and 20-year-olds in America are frequently stupid.

So why, if I hated these characters so much did I read two books by this woman?  Lisa See, for all that these main characters were terrible people, writes a great cast of diverse characters.  The main characters were selfish and stupid, but there were a LOT of wonderful, generous, kind, and interesting characters around them.  Then there were some whose greed, and selfishness and… God, I could hate them and part of me railed “who could do that.” even while I know people DO THAT.

And then there was the interesting pacing.  It wasn’t bad. There were a few places (usually when she was skimming months or years at a time) that it lagged, but there were these peaks and valleys that were beautifully subtle.  So one of the comments I’ve made about Pearl Buck’s Imperial Woman to friends is that because it’s based on someone’s life, it doesn’t/can’t follow the “traditional” novel plots’ ups-and-downs.  Lisa See manages to feel like she is following someone’s life (which shouldn’t have those “normal” flows) AND yet if I were to go back and plot the points – I bet she did actually follow that normal peak-and-valley template. ESPECIALLY for something that spans 20 years. I thought about it as I waited for book 2 to become available and realized she HAD done this well enough I didn’t notice it until later (which is pretty unusual to me).

Lastly, there is the world-building.  This is some amazing storytelling of the 1930s-1950s experience of Chinese-Americans.  I said it before, Lisa See somehow managed to touch on things like Japanese internment without sounding judgemental.  Hell, she managed to make Maoism sound positive (until all the starvation and death). -And granted, it helps that the idealism of communism/socialism appeals to some part of my bleeding-hearted-soul.  STILL – it is hard not to come into a communist state with an American character and not sound/come off as super judgy.

Would I necessarily recommend these books?  I mean, I said it ends up being like 3.5 on average, so yeah.  To the right person/audience I would absolutely recommend them.  To anyone who likes historical fiction absolutely.  To anyone who has come from abusive families of lies…. maybe actually.  It’s a good study in why lying tears people apart from the inside out.  Most people? If you want to explore a different voice, a different view of the world than the “shiny” side of the “American Dream” 1930s-1950s – damn is this a good one.  Let it say that if/when my library has more Lisa See books on audiobook available in the future I WILL probably pick them up and add her to my regular roster of authors I enjoy (I hope I’ll like other protagonists better, but I am very willing to give her that chance).