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The fascinating adventures of two Chinese girls who are survivors

  • Oct 28, 2010


Shanghai, 1937. Another world, almost another century. The sights, the smells, the incredibly varied and intriguing cuisines and the lives of two beautiful Chinese girls intertwine and  flow along in this beautifully written novel like an exorable river. Lisa See can write and you’re there in a Shanghai which will never come again, when women still tottered about on bound feet, when the wealthy had many servants and the poor had nothing. Shanghai was a little country unto itself, self-sufficient, snobby towards the rest of China which was considered backwards and primitive.


The Shanghai girls are two beautiful sisters who lived remarkably uninhibited and un-chaperoned lives, posing for advertising posters, staying out most of the night with their friends. May is the younger sister, eighteen and the favorite of the girls’ father. She

was born under the sign of the Sheep. Pearl, the narrator of the novel, at twenty-one is also lovely but tall with cheekbones, born a Dragon, and not quite as much loved by her parents as her sister, because she is not quite as beautiful. The sign one is born under is very important to the Chinese, and indeed, May is as comfortable and obliging as a sheep and Pearl is a scrapper, brave and feisty, like a dragon. In 1937 the girls are carefree, cosmopolitan, secure in their father’s wealth, and they are rather heedless like the American flappers of the twenties.


Although the sisters seem yin and yang, their love for each other is forged in steel and this bond is very important although at times their opposite natures clash. The Sheep versus the Dragon. Waiving off tradition, the two girls revel in their youth and beauty until their father tells them he has lost their inheritance gambling and in order to pay his debts he  must farm the girls out as husbands to two brothers who have traveled from Los Angeles in search of  suitable Chinese brides. The girls meet their husbands briefly, Pearl’s husband is Sam and he is her age, but May’s husband, Vernon, is only fourteen years old and cannot consummate the marriage. May sleeps with a total stranger, her husband, but hates the experience and incredibly the sheets of her marriage bed are examined by the man who arranged the marriages, as proof of the consummation and Pearl’s virginity.


In the meantime Japan attacks China and Pearl and May and their mother, (their father has disappeared) try to escape the bombs by sneaking into the country, sleeping in huts or on the ground, scrounging for food. They are brutalized by Japanese soldiers and Mama  dies after the soldiers strip off the coverings of her bound feet and stamp on the tortured toes. The girls manage to across the Pacific in a decrepit ship and are held at the immigration office in San Francisco for weeks, where they suffer one indignity after another in this virtual prison. May secretly gives birth to a baby girl in the shower room. Since Vernon is too young to be the father, May and Pearl change places, Pearl stuffs her clothing with pillows and May hides her growing belly behind loose clothing. Pearl acts as midwife in the shower room, and the authorities are none the wiser. But from that day on baby Joy is the daughter of Pearl and her husband, Sam, will fully accept her as his child. May keeps the paternity of the real father hidden even from Pearl, but the identity of the father will be revealed at the end of the book and his identity will have a profound effect twenty years later when Pearl discovers who actually sired the beautiful girl who has always been accepted as her daughter.


When the sisters are finally freed from the immigration bureau at Angel Island and travel south to meet their husbands, they become part of a cultural roller coaster ride. In China Town, LA, they are obliged to be crammed into a small flat where the two husbands and their tyrannical parents all live together. They are also trapped in another prison of sorts, a Chinese ghetto, living with husbands they hardly know, buffeted between American culture and traditional Chinese values. They try to balance the China of memories with the present, the now reality with golden memories of the past. Can one be an American but still be Chinese? “We raised our children to be Americans but what we wanted were proper Chinese sons and daughters.” But in China the respect of parents and of ancestors has been replaced by worship of Chairman Mao. An FBI witch hunt for communist sympathizers infiltrates the Chinese community, and Chinese who simply want to send money to their families are branded with the mark of Cain: communists.


Author See very deftly paints a vivid picture of the Chinese experience in America, her brush is filled with background color and the strokes of that brush are expertly applied. But the ending of the novel is rather a shocker and it absolutely guarantees a sequel. I am not sure the ending works, but her sensitive approach and beautiful writing style earn her four stars for this novel. Lisa See is a highly perspective writer and she will help you see inside the Chinese psyche and catch a glimpse of the Chinese heart.










Lisa morphs into an Oriental look! The real Lisa See

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October 29, 2010
Fantastic review! I really enjoyed your thoughts and the image you created of Lisa See. I'm surprised you felt like the piece was disorganized. It rad well--nice exploration of the story. :)
October 30, 2010
Thank you, Adrianna, I appreciate your remarks! :)
October 31, 2010
Always glad to offer some critique and help!
October 31, 2010
Plus, you are a good writer/reviewer!
More Shanghai Girls: A Novel reviews
Quick Tip by . September 28, 2010
I read Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and found Snow Flower and more absorbing read than Shanghai Girls. Reviewer KellyF is right on in saying this is historical fiction, much like Snow Flower except it takes place later at a time when many Chinese people immigrated to California. Shanghai Girls contains a couple of surprises and fascinating history of China and its people during the period covered.
review by . September 09, 2010
I was deeply affected by Lisa See's Shanghai Girls. The story is indeed, as Amy Tan puts it, "achingly beautiful."      For the most part, Shanghai girls is a fast-moving and riveting story. There are many intense moments, such as the pandemonium from an air raid on Shanghai where See paints a vividly macabre and gory picture of dismembered bodies and body parts in the aftermath of the bombing. My attention, however, did wane through some parts of the book. I found …
review by . July 24, 2010
As the quote above suggests, this novel reflects the culture and traditions of Chinese immigrants. Not all of their beliefs are politically correct.    In 1937 Shanghai was the most famous city in China, a spectacular and sordid collection of three million people, a city with a reputation for decadence and the pursuit of pleasure, side by side with abject poverty. It was also a great international city, dotted with skyscrapers and art deco buildings, with large numbers of people …
review by . June 21, 2009
Book Review: Shanghai Girls (Random House/ May 2009) by Lisa See    Building upon her interviews with past generations for On Gold Mountain, and further research, Lisa See has written an incredible new historical novel about two sisters.     Beginning in Shanghai China during the Japanese invasion (1937), two sisters, Pearl and May, narrowly escape their homeland, emigrating to the United States as the arranged-marriage wives of two Chinese men.    Continu …
review by . July 18, 2009
After reading Peony in Love, also by Lisa See, I picked this novel without stopping to read another line. Although this one is not, in my opinion, quite as good as the former, it provides a fascinating look at the Chinese immigration experience in America in the 1930's, and also the dynamics of Chinese and other Asian families of the time.       The main protagonist Pearl, and her sister May are not very likeable characters, and as a matter of fact, there's a dearth of likeable …
review by . June 22, 2009
Shanghai Girls is a moving story that left me touched and deeply affected. The story is indeed, as Amy Tan puts it, "achingly beautiful."    The story is set between 1937 and 1957. Pearl and May are sisters from an affluent family in Shanghai that belongs to the socially elite class. They are "beautiful girls" - or the high fashion models of their day - and living the good life. Their privileged and sheltered lives, however, come to an abrupt end as a slew of misfortunes and …
review by . May 28, 2009
Lisa See has created a vivid tale about the lives of two Chinese sisters who are the toast of the town in their native Shanghai...touted as "beautiful girls," they are anything but the traditional Chinese women their parents would have them to be; rebellious, partying until the wee hours of the morning, and flaunting their Western style of dress Pearl and May are living a Chinese dream. Until the day the facade of their lives comes crashing down around them; they discover that their father is not …
review by . May 18, 2009
The ending to a book can really ruin the story for me. I need things wrapped in a pretty little bow. This book had no bow. I realize the author left it open because there will obviously be a sequel to this book, but it feels like she met some pre-determined word count and just ended it. Too much of a cliffhanger and not enough closure. I think it was a bad choice (having said that, I will be reading the sequel for sure so I guess the author had her reasons, eh?)    The book is …
review by . April 04, 2009
I was tired when I finished the book. It was one of those where I had to stay up one night to finish it because when I tried to put it down, the story kept turning over in my head. I had an honest like and dislike for some of the characters. I do have to admit that part of me kept wondering what else could go wrong as the story progressed.     The most striking thing about this book was that it is the first time that I, as an African-American, could feel the effects of discrimination …
About the reviewer
Pam Sharp ()
   I'm a retired botanist with degrees from Smith College and the University of Arizona. I'm currently into designing T-shirts and other items for Zazzle. Am interested in almost everything … more
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Book Description
For readers of the phenomenal bestsellersSnow Flower and the Secret FanandPeony in Love--a stunning new novel from Lisa See about two sisters who leave Shanghai to find new lives in 1930s Los Angeles.

May and Pearl, two sisters living in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, are beautiful, sophisticated, and well-educated, but their family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Hoping to improve their social standing, May and Pearl’s parents arrange for their daughters to marry “Gold Mountain men” who have come from Los Angeles to find brides.

But when the sisters leave China and arrive at Angel’s Island (the Ellis Island of the West)--where they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months--they feel the harsh reality of leaving home. And when May discovers she’s pregnant the situation becomes even more desperate. The sisters make a pact that no one can ever know.

A novel about two sisters, two cultures, and the struggle to find a new life in America while bound to the old, Shanghai Girls is a fresh, fascinating adventure from beloved and bestselling author Lisa See.

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ISBN-10: 0812980530
ISBN-13: 978-0812980530
Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks

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