Summary and book reviews of Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls

A Novel

By Lisa See

Shanghai Girls
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: May 2009,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2010,
    336 pages.

    Publication Information

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Chapter One
Beautiful Girls

"Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks," my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him. "Can't you do something about them?"

Mama stares at Baba, but what can she say? My face is pretty enough - some might even say lovely - but not as luminescent as the pearl I'm named for. I tend to blush easily. Beyond that, my cheeks capture the sun. When I turned five, my mother began rubbing my face and arms with pearl creams, and mixing ground pearls into my morning jook - rice porridge - hoping the white essence would permeate my skin. It hasn't worked. Now my cheeks burn red - exactly what my father hates. I shrink down into my chair. I always slump when I'm near him, but I slump even more on those occasions when Baba takes his eyes off my sister to look at me. I'm taller than my father, which he loathes. We live in Shanghai, where the tallest car, the tallest wall, or the tallest building sends a clear and unwavering ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
Book Group Questions

  1. Pearl's narration is unique because of its level, calm tone throughout – even when the events she describes are horrific. One is reminded of Wordsworth's reference to "emotion recollected in tranquility." It is almost as if Pearl is writing in a diary. What was Lisa trying to accomplish in setting up this counterpoint between her tone and her narrative?
  2. Pearl is a Dragon and May is a Sheep. Do you think the two sisters are true to their birth signs in their actions in Shanghai Girls?
  3. Which sister is smarter? Which is more beautiful?
  4. Each sister believes that her parents loved the other sister more. Who is right about this? Why?
  5. Pearl says that parents die, husbands and ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

The only criticism that can be leveled against the book – and it's certainly minor - is that loose-ends are not wrapped up by the novel's conclusion, leading one to believe (and hope) there's another book in the works that will feature Pearl and the women around her. Regardless, Shanghai Girls is perhaps Lisa See's best novel to date. Its multi-layered themes will keep readers fascinated, while its fast-moving plot will keep them entertained. The novel is sure to please existing fans while attracting a whole new set of admirers. Highly recommended.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Media Reviews
Washington Post

See's emotional themes are powerful but familiar -- the bonds of sisterhood, the psychological journey of becoming an American -- and when she pauses for character development, clichés creep in... But China's 20th-century upheavals afford at least as much color as its days of old; Shanghai Girls will not lose See any fans, and it bravely moves her oeuvre into the challenging terrain of more recent history.

USA Today

See is a gifted writer, and in Shanghai Girls she again explores the bonds of sisterhood while powerfully evoking the often nightmarish American immigrant experience.

New York Times - Janet Maslin

Shanghai Girls is much loftier than its cover art’s stunning portrait of beautifully adorned Asian women…The detail is thoughtful and intricate in ways that hardly qualify this book as the stuff of chick lit.

Booklist

"See's kaleidoscopic saga transits from the barbaric horrors of Japanese occupation to the sobering indignities suffered by foreigners in 1930s Hollywood while offering a buoyant and lustrous paean to the bonds of sisterhood.

Kirkus Reviews

Despite engrossing complications ... the Chinatown section, spanning 20 years, seems overlong. The final chapters, however ... are worth the wait.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Possibly the best book yet from the author of Peony in Love; highly recommended.

Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week

Starred Review. See explores tradition, the ravages of war and the importance of family in her excellent latest.

Reader Reviews
milii

straight to the heart
Such an amazing book, i enjoyed every part of it, is a detailed portrait of the experience of many asian immigrants, very human and shocking.

Charlotte

GREAT!
This book was fabulous the plot kept me interested in the book and it was really really good. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone. I chose to write my book report on it for school and it is turning out really great! Lisa See is a great ...   Read More

ch3rry

not finishable
Contains possible plot spoilers
I didn't like the writing, so much that when the wartime part was over I put the book away. Situations were unbelievable: mother is raped to an extent that she dies, but before that she spends an entire night ...   Read More

dorothy

Not to be missed!
Lisa See has written a great book! This story is satisfying on many levels, some scenes horrifying, but seemingly truthful, and her handling of the relationship between sisters exactly right, if not (thankfully) the story of all sister relationships...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Angel Island Immigration Station

In Shanghai Girls, Pearl and May are incarcerated at the Angel Island Immigration Station after fleeing war-torn China. Angel Island was the first stop for most Chinese entering the United States during this period; 175,000 were processed there during its thirty years of operation.

Chinese immigration to the United States began in the mid-1800s as a result of the California Gold Rush. Although initially welcomed, or at least tolerated, an economic downturn in the 1870s created resentment as the immigrants willingness to work for low wages was viewed as depriving others of gainful employment. This led to a series of immigration laws targeting Asians, beginning with the Chinese ...

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