Monday, May 24, 2010

Alphabet in Historical Fiction: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Today I am posting my contribution to the letter L in the Alphabet in Historical Fiction which is hosted by Historical Tapestry, and also is one of my reviews for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It also happens that Kelly from The Written World and I both had this book coming up to read soon, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do another joint review. Kelly has the first half of the review over at her blog, and the second half is on mine. Kelly's thoughts are in black, and mine are in purple.

First, here's the synopsis from the book:

In 1937, Shanghai is 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.

Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America. In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life. They face terrible sacrifices, make impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are–Shanghai girls.

I think that there are probably three factors that make reading the immigrant experience interesting for me. The first is what makes a person want to leave their home? Generally it is hardship, war, famine, poverty, bad family situation etc. I think that things usually have to be pretty bad for someone want to leave their homeland, family to start afresh. Yes, in this day and age their are reasons like a new job, but I am talking about the people who really struggle to get to a new life. The second factor is the idea of triumphing over adversity, becoming something different or more than they were previously and the struggle to get to that point. The third factor for me, is that whether we are talking about a Chinese person immigrating to America in the 1930s, people arriving in Canada or Australia at any time, there are direct parallels with people today. There are still people who are still trying to get to a better place for themselves and their children. Some times this may be through illegal means which is something that many countries around the world are dealing with today (including Australia and America), and other times legally, but at the heart of these people's quest is the desire to give the best life they can for their families, some thing I am sure that all of us can relate to.

I have to ask you about the formatting in your copy. I read the Randhom House large print version, and it had very strange bolding all the through it. A lot of the time, the bolding was of Chinese terms, and other times I think it was for emphasis, but there were times when it looked like just random words were highlighted. I found it very strange and a little distracting at times. Did you have this in your copy?

As to the formatting, mine was just regular formatting. That's weird that they chose to bold words in the large print edition. Having never actually read a large-print version of a book I am not sure if that is maybe a regular thing?

I definitely don't think it is a regular thing. I read a number of large print books mainly because it is the luck of the draw when you request a book from the library in terms of which edition you receive.

That makes no sense, then!

What were your overall impressions of Pearl and May?

I liked both of them, even allowing for the fact that they were very different types of people. I felt I could relate most to Pearl because she kind of buckled down to do what was expected of her once she was reunited with her husband and his new family even though it meant that she didn't get to live her dreams I feel that I can relate to that idea of doing what you have to do to get by. I found the idea of May fascinating, but the reality of Pearl more relatable. I did find the fact that May stayed married to Vernon a little out of character for everything else we found out about May though. I found the lengths that the two girls went to for each other were extreme, and I am grateful that I haven't had to be in anything like those situations with my own sister.

As for me, I really liked both of them. They were different people, though, so the relationship with each was different. Since Pearl told most of the story you got to know her better. She annoyed me at times. She had such potential in the beginning and then she got a bit dull for a while. I know that she had went through some terrible things, but it was so sad to watch her give-up. She became the person that she scorned when she was living in China. That's not to say that I didn't like her, but she lost a lot of herself for a while. Near the end of the book she started coming back into herself and I think she will be a very interesting character in the sequel. Pearl stayed pretty much the same. She turned out to be a bit more worldy than you originally would think, but she still wanted to be the same person that she was when things were good in China. I thought she was going to be really annoying because of her way of thinking, but she actually turned out to be more than I expected.

Much is made of the fact that Pearl was a Dragon and May a Sheep in the Chinese horoscope. Do you know what you are, and do you think that the attributes fit you?

I actually meant to look this up! I used to know what I was, but I am not even sure if what I am thinking is a sign! lol

I would like to talk a little about Joy. In some ways it seemed as though she was forced to grow up very early, what with going to be in the movies as a very little girl and then working in the family business at such a young age. Were you surprised by the way things turned out for her, particularly in relation to the ending? I was so glad when I found that there was going to be a sequel because otherwise I would definitely have been looking at the book and thinking you can't end a book there!

Yeah, we entirely overlooked Joy in this review, didn't we? I think she had to grow up faster than her mother and aunt, which is crazy when you think about the difference in experiences. She was exposed to a lot, though, and I think she will hopefully play a central role in the sequel so we can get to know her better.


 Thanks Kelly for another fun joint review.

Rating 4/5


  1. I absolutely LOVED Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and was dying to read this when it first came out. I will admit I had kind forgotten about it (or at least, put it to the back of my mind) until I saw your review! Now I'm totally intrigued again. Will have to get my hands on a copy, and soon!

    PS. I heard that they're making a movie for Snow Flower...can't wait for more details to be released!

  2. I've been meaning to read this book for a long time, thank you for reminding me! And, it was a very enjoyable review to read.

  3. A friend of mine just bought me a copy of this book, and it is sitting right next to me on the couch as I type! I will have to see if my book contains the same highlights as your does. Excellent review! I will be coming back to it!

  4. Thanks for this review! I enjoyed Snow Flower, but didn't particularly care for Peony in Love. I'll give See a third go with this book at some point, because the story and characters sound really interesting!



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