In the new novel Shanghai Girls by Lisa See we follow the lives and tales of two extremely heroic women. The story opens in 1937 as we embark on a whirlwind adventure of extreme highs and lows with Pearl and her sister May. These women are everyday beauties in China, constantly being painted by artists therefore having their faces litter the streets of Shanghai. These women are in love with all things foreign from their names to the things the artists advertise with their faces. At night after their rendezvous with various artists they parade around the international city of Shanghai in search of love. Compared to prior novels by Lisa See this book takes place in the 20th century where women no longer bind their feet or have arranged marriages. These women are aloof and do not interact with those deemed to be a lower class, unless they are discussing the cost of their rickshaw on their way to French Concession. As if the city is doomed from the start so are the girls. Against their wishes their father arranges marriages for his daughters in order to pay off his gambling debts. Yet being the defiant and strong women they are they attempt to disobey their father- this is short lived- as the city is bombed by the Japanese.
This novel is different than its predecessors as the women are presented differently and attempt to fight against the men that bind them, well at least one sister. They become antagonists for each other: May the headstrong, selfish, and deviant younger sister and Pearl the loving, sacrificial, matriarchal older sister. These women are trapped in Shanghai paying off their father’s debts as their husbands leave them after one night together bound for America; these sisters vow not to follow their husbands to Los Angeles. Yet their father’s loan sharks come around to collect or destroy causing these women to escape with their mother. After a tumultuous path the women make it onto a boat headed to San Francisco; when they arrive they are immediately sent to California’s Ellis Island -Angel Island- and sequestered. Following a long cycle of questions and months in prison May gives birth to a daughter, Joy, who can in no way be her husband’s, –as they didn’t do the ‘husband-wife thing’. The women are finally released from Angel Island into their husbands loving arms-at least Pearl anyway- into Los Angeles and the staged China City.
What follows is an emotion cycle of ups and downs for each woman. Pearl and May are searching for something more something to sustain their wild spirits. For Pearl she has the Louie Family to take care of and for May she has everything else. Throughout the book the women are presented with obstacles, which they must overcome and surpass in order to progress throughout the story. Pearl eventually becomes her mother responsible and demanding of others while May embraces the Hollywood lifestyle and becomes increasingly selfish and self absorbed. After a lifetime of trials the novel ends with a difficult close, which focuses the readers thoughts on the next book.
See’s book is truly powerful and brings the reader on an emotional journey. The author intertwines her fiction with actual historical events that allow the reader to learn and become completely engrossed in these women’s lives. Lisa See uses a similar theme of sisterhood and Americanization which at times is a tad trivial in comparison to her previous novels, which were an anomaly to every other piece of literature that is produced during their respective eras. However, every inquisitive mind should read this novel in order to gain perspective about not only about this unique culture but also their world during this time. See has a unique ability to intertwine historical facts into her literature, which educates the reader. Many other reviewers have criticized her for this writing yet I see it as strength that she is able to entertain and educate her audience. In the end of the novel we are presented with this question: Would you follow May or Pearl? Each has exhibited their unique characteristics and has the ability to thrive. Our only hope is that these characters continue to develop and blossom as they have in front of our eyes. If you were presented with this situation would you triumph as they had? Or would you crumble as so many others before them?
Book Club Questions:
1. While the story is told from Pearl’s perspective the story is truly about May and her transformation through life. Do you think that May has changed or made any sacrifice by the end of the novel?
2. Each sister harbors resentment against each other believing their parents have favoritism for the other. Who is right? Why do they argue about events that have no effect on their lives at present?
3. While the author does not totally examine the issue fully there was a great prejudice against Asian Americans during this time. Discuss examples of this in the book and knowledge you have gained from other outside sources as well.
4. Pearl’s motherly instinct does not come easily, due to the torture she has received. Consider this and her relationship with her daughter, does it destroy or strengthen their relationship.
5. Do you think it was right for Pearl and Sam to keep their history from their daughter? Do you think it adversely affects her? Or is it a benefit in forming her identity?
Shanghai Girls is available on Amazon
Images courtesy of Indie
- Reading Rendezvous: Heart of Lies by M.L. Malcolm
- Reading Rendezvous: Brooklyn: A Novel by Colm Toibin
- Reading Rendezvous: Little Bee: A Novel by Chris Cleave
- Reading Rendezvous: Substitute Me by Lori Tharps
- “Car Girls” by Jacqueline Hassink