Book Review: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Book: Dreams of Joy
Author: Lisa See
Pages: 354
Format: Hardcover, paperback, Kindle/ebook, audiobook
Publisher:  Random House
Book Source: Public Library System
Category: Historical fiction
Style: Bleak, disturbing imagery

Synopsis from GoodReads:  

Reeling from newly uncovered family secrets, and anger at her mother and aunt for keeping them from her, Joy runs away to Shanghai in early 1957 to find her birth father—the artist Z.G. Li, with whom both May and Pearl were once in love. Dazzled by him, and blinded by idealism and defiance, Joy throws herself into the New Society of Red China, heedless of the dangers in the communist regime.

Devastated by Joy’s flight and terrified for her safety, Pearl is determined to save her daughter, no matter the personal cost. From the crowded city to remote villages, Pearl confronts old demons and almost insurmountable challenges as she follows Joy, hoping for reconciliation. Yet even as Joy’s and Pearl’s separate journeys converge, one of the most tragic episodes in China’s history threatens their very lives.  read more . . .

My Take:

I didn't care for Shanghai Girls, the sequel of which Dreams of Joy is.  I found it bleak, oppressive and far too graphically violent in a scene where the protagonist is sexually assaulted by a gang of soldiers.  From that nadir, it improved precious little.  I found no hope in it.  However, I read a reviewer who indicated that the sequel, Dreams of Joy, improves the first.  That made sense to me, especially at the particular place Ms. See breaks the story.  A sequel bespoke resolution, and the front half could well be improved by the back.

So, I reserved Dreams of Joy at the library.  I wish I hadn't.  I have so many better things to read.

Again, Pearl and her daughter, Joy, are plunged into the perils and ennui of post-war/-revolution China when Joy runs away from home to Shanghai to find her birth-father.  She conveniently has a passport.  Her mother keeps a fortune in a coffee can under the sink.  The biggest difficulty she encounters is her college boyfriend bailing out on her when she calls his bluff.  He has no intention of joining "the People" in China to built a glorious new nation.  Joy hops on a plane and goes anyway, determined never to return.  Pearl chases after her, hard on her heels, financed with surprisingly more money stashed away in the house.

Joy finds her father, a disillusioned but famous artist on the brink of renunciation.  She has no real difficulty getting to Shanghai, and the authorities are only too happy to tell her exactly where to find him.  He not only accepts her but whisks her off to the countryside, his preferred punishment over exile to a Chinese Gulag.  Joy falls in love, with the people, with the countryside, with the cooperative, and a talented local boy with an eye for the ladies.  However, primarily she's in love with her own idealism and refuses to see what has soured her father on the People's Republic.

Joy and Pearl have just walked into one of Mao's worst blunders, "The Great Leap Forward", which resulted in famine and starvation for millions in his full communization of the cooperatives and disastrous farming strategies.  Lisa See does it full justice, in Panovision and Technicolor.  While not as overtly violent as Shanghai Girls, it is far more disturbing.  I closed it more than once, hesitant to go where I feared Ms. See meant to take me. When I start scanning pages ahead, I've pretty much given up on the book.  But, I needed a review for today so I made myself finish it.

The author manages to convey the opposing perspectives of Joy and Pearl with equal dexterity.  She gets inside both women's heads and peeks around.  She follows Joy's learning curve, from wide-eyed innocence and unfailing optimism to cynical, calculating manipulation of the system mandatory for survival.  Pearl gradually grows into her dragon self and realizes her own self-worth.

Pearl acts heroically.  Joy is terribly clever.  Pearl is at last rewarded for a miserable life (although, right up to the last page it seems unlikely).  May, perpetually off-stage and piping money in from America, likewise manages to wrestle her demons into submission.

Ms. See knows her craft. She manages to approach the strengths and weaknesses of socialism and communism with a fair and unprejudiced eye.  Her grasp of the social and ideological issues of the day seem well-grounded and are treated with honesty and respect.

She resolves the interpersonal relationship issues by the end of the book.  Everyone's suffering has made them larger, more tolerant; taught them contentment, even joy.  Everyone important survives.  But all that comes within the last ten pages of the book.  There is not enough to light to dispel the oppressive darkness, and certainly not enough to tempt me into either book.

Bottom line:  Ms. See tells a compelling story that is nicely paced, starkly real, and well-considered.  I fear I just don't care for the stories she chooses to tell.

FTC disclaimer:  I borrowed this book through the public library system and received no compensation from the author or their agent for this content.


Unknown said...

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Unknown said...

Thanks, Hira! You're too kind. Here's my response to your questions: