An American writer with Chinese-American heritage, Lisa See drew broad attention for her earlier work Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005). This book, and subsequent titles, have propelled her toward the ranks of widely-respected Chinese/Chinese-American historical fiction authors, like the famous Amy Tan of The Joy Luck Club. Like Tan, See focuses on women’s relationships as the bonds that define and carry them through their often difficult lives.
It is with Shanghai Girls (2009) and Dreams of Joy (2011) that See really comes into her stride as a writer of emotionally intense historical fiction. Dreams of Joy debuted at number one on the New York Times fiction bestseller list. Its prequel Shanghai Girls chronicles the lives of two sisters, Pearl and May Chin. The only children of a bourgeois couple living in 1930s Shanghai, Pearl and May imagine themselves to be modern girls. They dance at clubs, party with artists and intellectuals, model for widely-used beautiful girl calendars, and dress to the nines in the latest western fashions.
When their father amasses an insurmountable debt to the Green Gang, however, their glamorous lives suddenly become gut-wrenchingly traditional as Pearl and May are sold as brides to the sons of a Chinese-American merchant. Their family’s personal disaster coincides with the first rumblings of the second Sino-Japanese war in 1937. With their country suddenly invaded by Japanese soldiers, escaping from their marriages soon seems less significant as Shanghai is ransacked and they must flee for their lives.
To escape the tumult, May and Pearl do what they would have before considered unthinkable–they board a ship to America to join their arranged husbands. Together, they begin a new life of hardship and toil in California, where hai-lai-wu is nothing like the shining beacon they imagined. Shanghai Girls examines the ties that bind sisters together in the face of life, the secrets they keep from one another, and the forces that threaten to destroy their friendship.
See does a wonderful job of seamlessly including both major historical events and casual references to period clothing, TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines. This gives her books a powerful aura of authenticity that both serious and occasional readers of historical fiction will greatly enjoy. Whereas many historical fiction books gloss over the gory details and the less-than-happy endings, See embraces these personal catastrophes in her writing as struggles that help form the emotional bond between the reader and the characters.
Dreams of Joy picks up directly following the action of Shanghai Girls. Whereas Shanghai Girls is narrated entirely by Pearl, the older of the two sisters, Dreams of Joy is told from two perspectives: Pearl’s and her daughter Joy’s. Whereas sisterly love was the entire focus of Shanghai Girls, See splits the focus between May and Pearl’s relationship struggles and Pearl’s tumultuous relationship with her daughter Joy. As the cover alludes, Dreams of Joy takes readers back to China during the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the Great Leap Forward of Mao’s communist government.
These two books are tightly bound together–so much so that I suspect that they were originally written as one novel that grew too long, so it was truncated into two halves. Shanghai Girls ends with unusually sharp abruptness, leaving readers desperate for Dreams of Joy. I pity those who had to wait the long two years for the sequel to be released.
Nonetheless, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy constitute a sweeping historical saga, covering a vast expanse of Chinese and American history as seen through the lens of three women’s lives. While long when read together, See is a masterful storyteller, leaving readers happy to explore the detailed intricacies of her drawn-out, arching plot lines and deep, soulful characters.