Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Book:  Shanghai Girls
Author:  Lisa See
Pages:  336
Format: Hardcover, paperback, audio book, Kindle/ebook
Publisher:  Random House (2009)
Book Source:  Private Loan
Category:  Historical Fiction
Style:  Character-driven, tragic

Synopsis from GoodReads:

In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business, twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Though both sisters wave off authority and tradition, they couldn’t be more different: Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree . . . until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from California to find Chinese brides. . . . read more 

This book is well-written with a compelling and tragic story line. However, were it a movie, I would rate it a strong R due to the violence and sexual content. One would argue that its subject matter, Shanghai of the 1930's, the Japanese invasion of the Sino-Japanese war, and the horrors that accompanied it, demand such treatment. However, I believe the best authors capable of conveying the concepts and evoking the proper visceral responses in the reader without such graphic detail.
It is also very bleak, with little relief to either reader or protagonist. To quote Pearl: "my life has not had three days of happiness or three days of sunshine." She emerges with a better understanding of her mother after twenty years of hardship, but I found the book otherwise without enough character growth for my taste. 

However, with its long list of credits, Ms. Lee has done an excellent job with her research and the story feels very true to life. She draws from interviews and tales from real Chinese American immigrants, and one cannot help but have compassion for the protagonists and anger over the persecution and discrimination they suffered in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave in the 19th & 20th centuries. With her matter-of-fact prose, Ms. Lee manages to illuminate the lives of her people without banging a drum about it, which is both refreshing and compelling. She gives enough information and trusts the reader to get there on their own.

Even so, she fails to create the strong attachment between her protagonist and the reader necessary to make the book truly satisfying. Perhaps Pearl's inability to completely drop the barriers between herself and her family due to her emotional scars fosters the same barrier between her and the reader. I find unfortunate Ms. Lee's inability to convey one while dispelling the other. Sadly, Pearl's worst tragedies left this reader dry-eyed.

Bottom Line:  This book provides excellent insight into the Chinese American experience, but is graphically violent without providing any emotional pay-off. I won't be reading this book again.

Footnote:  I read in this review that this book improves when read in conjunction with its sequel, Dreams of Joy.  If I read it and find I agree, I'll amend my review as did the above critic.  However, for now, I remain skeptical. 

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

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