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.
As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, 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 even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.
At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection, but like sisters everywhere they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other, but each knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other the most. Along the way 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.
The last paragraph above is a perfect description of Lisa See’s wonderful novel Shanghai Girls. At its heart, this book is a story of the intense and unbreakable bond between Pearl & May that lasts through a lifetime. The story begins in Shanghai…Pearl & May are young women, footloose & fancy free, extravagant, disrespectful, rebellious, jealous, and woefully ignorant (or perhaps purposefully so?) of current events and their family’s loss of status & descent into poverty. As they are faced with the fact that their father has lost everything – including what they thought was theirs – they slowly come to grips with the new realities that face them.
What comes as a surprise to them is the strength their mother demonstrates in the face of terrible danger as the green gang tightens the noose around their family, and as the Japanese their invasion of China. She has saved money, unbeknownst to the rest of her family, and she is able to use it (along with a few other personal treasures) to facilitate their escape from Shanghai. As traditional a Chinese wife as she is, she shows herself to be a woman of great strength and foresight, and she ultimately sacrifices herself to save her daughters…something that they will not fully appreciate until many years later. They do not realize how very much like their mother they both are, because in the wake of her death, both Pearl & May demonstrate their own loyalty to each other, and strength in the face of seemingly indomitable circumstances. This scenario of loyalty & strength repeats itself again and again over the course of their lives, and becomes the defining characteristic not only of their relationship with each other, but also the relationships they forge with their paper family in the US.
I thought Lisa See did a masterful job of balancing Pearl’s and May’s personal life experiences against the backdrop of the second World War. I was swept into the story in such a way that I felt like I was experiencing it along with them…fearful for their lives as they made their escape from Shanghai, anxious that they pass the inquiry at Angel Island, thankful that they made it safely to Los Angeles, wishing that they could find contentment, and happy when they reconcile their relationships with their new family. They were thrown together by necessity and circumstance, and they (all of them) found a way to respect and love each other in spite of the circumstances that brought them to this point. I grew to love each of them as they grew to love each other, and ultimately felt that Ms. See created a story that was realistic, and that showed a perspective of WWII life that gives a more well-rounded picture of what the Chinese ex-patriots truly experienced.
In the end, I felt the same frustration and fear over Joy (their daughter) that Pearl, May, Sam & Vern feel. It’s so difficult to understand how she can be sympathetic to China’s new communist regime when she has family who escaped dire circumstances to pursue a life (of freedom) in the US. Granted, their US life was far from ideal, but Joy was so entrenched in her own misguided beliefs, and so embarrassed by her family’s “fresh off the boat” lack of assimilation that she would not listen to reason or wisdom. I loved that Ms. See brought Pearl’s story full circle, and allowed for her to tap into the courage that brought her to the US in the first place, so that she could return to China in search of her daughter. What a beautiful love story!