Lisa See's latest novel, Shanghai Girls, follows two sisters' lives
from 1937 to 1957, a time of rapid change for China and for those of Chinese
descent living in the USA. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China, temporarily
halting a civil war that had begun in 1927 and didn't end until the founding of
The People's Republic of China in 1950. During this period, many Chinese fled to the United States
where they were met with draconian immigration procedures, hostility and
discrimination in their neighborhoods, and the suspicion of being Communist
spies (most notably during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s). The
author creates a rich sense of time and place, from the descriptions of the terror of being in
Shanghai as the first bombs fell, to life in San Francisco's Chinese neighborhoods. Pearl Chin is the Chinese "everywoman" who narrates the story, leading the reader through these tumultuous events to a
deeper understanding of the immigrant experience from the perspective of the
Chinese citizens who relocated to the United States in the 1940s and 50s.
See has many talents, but she is especially adept at characterization; even minor figures are well-drawn and three-dimensional. Pearl in particular is an extraordinary creation in that she's both a remarkable woman and completely ordinary at the same time a difficult balance for any author to achieve. Her growth throughout the story is exceptionally well illustrated. She starts out as a callow, self-absorbed girl completely oblivious to the world around her who, like so many children on the brink of adulthood, thinks her parents are old-fashioned and know far less than she. By the end of the book she has gained wisdom; she now understands her parents' concerns and appreciates the lessons they tried to teach her as she attempts to pass the same lessons down to her own daughter. It's an extremely believable and realistic progression, and the author does a fine job of conveying it to her readers.
See is also a keen observer of how people react and relate to one another. As in her previous novels, she explores the complex relationship that develops between women who have known each other over a long period of time, in this case the relationship of Pearl and her younger sister, May. As in real-life, the women's perspectives differ and cause a degree of tension. As in most sisterhoods there is love, but also long-simmering resentment and the ability to wound each other deeply. The way in which the sisters interact will undoubtedly resonate with readers, particularly those with siblings.
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.
The Red Princess Mysteries
To be published: Apparently Lisa plans a sequel to Shanghai Girls.
This review was originally published in June 2009, and has been updated for the February 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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