Sunday, May 23, 2010

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Today I have a buddy review with Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. I am in white and she in green... I think! I never know what colors will work!

In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face 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.

When Lisa See has a new historical fiction book out I am always really really excited! I have to admit that Chinese history is not an aspect of history I know a lot about, but I feel like I am learning just a bit more every time I read one of See's novels. Her novels are works of fiction, of course, but they are set against real events with characters that are compelling. This book was another strong book by her and I am happy to hear that there is going to be a sequel. How did you find that this book was compared to See's other books?

I remember being very excited when I saw this was out too, and yet it has taken me ages to actually getting around to reading it. I have borrowed it from the library quite a few times and returned it unread. It's one of those books that I wish I had read earlier!

I actually thought this book was very different from the other historical fiction novels I have read by her. There is the same emphasis on Chinese tradition, but the story is much more modern, and I thought a lot more confronting. This was mainly because of the fact that much of the story happened in relatively modern times, being 60 or 70 years ago rather than several hundred years, and yet I am sure that there are still people around who feel the repercussions of the segregation and fear that enveloped our main characters. I found it very interesting that whilst Pearl and May lived in Shanghai, they were very influenced by Western culture, and yet, once they made it to America, Pearl in particular felt very boxed in to becoming more and more Chinese.

Do you think that the two girls had any choice in this matter?

I think that the girls are products of their up-bringing combined with their personalities. I think if things had played out differently for Pearl than she would have turned out differently, but she really changed during the problems in Shanghai. May, though, had a very different life and still wanted men to look at her and see her as a 'Beautiful Girl'. What she did while in America was all related to this in many ways. Whether or not they could have avoided how they turned out, though, is hard to say really. It would depend on what changed in their lives.

I agree with you that this book was rather different than the other two books she wrote, but that turned out to be a good thing. I really enjoyed the way that she chose to look at this time period and felt that I learned a lot as a result. I really liked both Pearl and May, so enjoyed watching their story progress. It wasn't just their story, though. You watched many of the characters in the book develop so that they were 'real' characters. I really like when an author can pull that off.

What was your favourite scene in the book?

I am not sure that I can choose a favourite scene in the book in the usual way where you choose a heart warming moment, but the scenes that have remained with me are the graphic ones. Very early in the book Pearl and May are caught up in a bombing in Shanghai, and the sense of terror, and the terrible scenes witnessed are probably what will stay with me long after finishing this novel. Similarly, the scene in the room with their mother as they are trying to get out of China was quite graphic, without really showing you anything, if that makes sense, and the section of the book where the girls were held in Angel Island. Did you find this novel overly graphic? For me, it was not overly graphic, just a sort of implied graphicness but those scenes were all very powerful. And fair's fair, you need to share your favourite scenes too!

I had to really think about my favourite scenes. This book isn't really all that heart-warming. There are few happy scenes mixed in, but generally it is a book that is rather hard to swallow at times. Lisa See did not sugar-coat the experience for anyone! This meant that days after finishing the book I am still thinking about what these two young women went through and how different it is from my own experiences. People are sexist at times, and I am a girl, but generally we live in a world where I am treated relatively well because I am at least white. I'd love to say that I feel for people and I understand what they go through, but I really don't. Unless you actually go through it yourself you cannot really understand what it was like to be Chinese in America in the early parts of the 20th-century. I learned about it somewhat from this book, and think I have a bit of an understanding, but generally it is something that I cannot even imagine. Their suffering will stick with me for a while.

Does that mean you found this book to be a depressing read?

At times it was depressing. A lot of bad things happened to them, so it was hard to not find it sad. There were nice moments, though, that balanced things out. There were times where things really were going well for the sisters and they were happy, so the readers would be happy, too. I guess I didn't think the word depressing when I finished the book. Maybe more of an overwhelming experience. It's hard to imagine the terrible things that happen to people.

What do you think it is that makes books about the immigrant experience so fascinating?

I have never read a lot about Chinese immigration to North America, so I am not sure if I can speak on that subject. Most of my reading has been about immigrants arriving in Canada through Pier 21 and I enjoy that because it is 'my' history, so to speak. I think, though, that part of the reason it is so interesting is that every experience is different. I have read books where it is a group of individual stories and it is fascinating to see the diversity in what life was like when they reached 'the new world'. I think that is why I really liked this book. You see a bunch of different characters and through them get the chance to see how each reacted to life in America. I think when it comes to immigrants coming to Canada I like to think that they were happy here because I consider Canada a great place to live, but I know that is not always the case. What do you think on the subject?

Head over to Marg's Blog to read the second half of the review!

Thanks to Random House for my review copy of this book!

1 comment:

  1. This is my favorite by See. The scene where the younger sister gives birth and no one can know will stick with me forever.


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