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Summary and book reviews of China Dolls by Lisa See

China Dolls

by Lisa See

China Dolls
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Jun 2014, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2015, 416 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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About this Book

Book Summary

Lisa See has garnered international acclaim for her great skill at rendering the intricate relationships of women and the complex meeting of history and fate. Now comes her highly anticipated new novel, China Dolls.

The New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and Shanghai Girls has garnered international acclaim for her great skill at rendering the intricate relationships of women and the complex meeting of history and fate. Now comes Lisa See's highly anticipated new novel, China Dolls.
 
It's 1938 in San Francisco: a world's fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.
 
The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Only three things cannot be long hidden:
the sun,
the moon,
and the truth.
(Attributed to Buddha)

P a r t O n e
The Sun
October 1938–July 1940
GRACE
A Measly Girl

I traveled west— alone— on the cheapest bus routes I could find. Every mile took me farther from Plain City, Ohio, where I'd been a flyspeck on the wallpaper of small-town life. Each new state I passed through loosened another rope around my heart, my legs, my arms, yet my whole body ached and I couldn't shake my vertigo. I lived on aspirin, crackers, and soda pop. I cried and cried and cried. On the eighth day, California. Many hours after crossing the boundary, I got off the bus and pulled my sweater a little more tightly around me. I expected sun and warmth, but on that October afternoon, fog hung over San Francisco, damp, and shockingly cold.

Picking up my suitcase, I left the bus station and started to walk. The receptionists at the cheap hotels I visited told me they were full. "Go to ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The novel opens with the below quotation: "Only three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth." What do you think this quotation means in the context of China Dolls? Lisa's novel is filled with secrets—some hidden and not revealed until late in the novel. What were the most important ones? Why are they hidden? Why are they secrets? Do you agree with how and when they were revealed?
  2. "China doll" or "China dolls" are phrases used often in the novel. What are the most important meanings behind this phrase? Which are positive? Which are negative?
  3. It seems as if there's a fine line between the blessings of family and the burdens of family. How is that line crossed in each girl's family? What do you ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

It is impossible not to be impressed by the vast amount of research that went into this novel. From Chinatown nightclubs and a Hollywood studio to Japanese internment camps, Lisa See knows her settings through and through, and uses them as a vibrant backdrop for this touching story of three "true-heart friends."   (Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

Full Review (833 words).

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Media Reviews

Library Journal

While this novel is definitely slower paced than the author's prior works, See's many fans will still enjoy watching each protagonist's true story unfold; they will also be intrigued by the vivacity of the 'Chop Suey Circuit'.

Kirkus Reviews

The episodic and creaky plot staggers under the weight of See's considerable research into the careers and lifestyles of the actual stars of the all-Asian revue craze of the 1930s and '40s. Still, a welcome spotlight on an overlooked segment of showbiz history.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The depth of See's characters and her winning prose makes this book a wonderful journey through love and loss.

Author Blurb Paula McLain, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Wife
China Dolls mines a fascinating part of our cultural history through the story of a trio of women who become a complex constant in one another's lives even as the world serves up painful transformation. Lisa See gets so much just right here. You'll want to dive right in.

Author Blurb Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Songs of Willow Frost
This is one of those stories I've always wanted to tell, but Lisa See beat me to it, and she did it better than I ever could. Bravo! Here's a roaring standing ovation for this heartwarming journey into the glittering golden age of Chinese nightclubs.

Reader Reviews

Helene Frost

China Dolls
Lisa See does not disappoint. Another blockbuster that kept me interested from beginning to end. Excellent character development. Another aspect of the effects of WWII that I have learned.

Dorothy T.

China Dolls
I was excited to have an opportunity to receive and review this latest novel from Lisa See, who has been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, then later Shanghai Girls. See has a gift for placing her characters in ...   Read More

Linda Reck

China Dolls
It's 1938 in San Francisco, and Helen, Grace and ruby, three women from very different backgrounds meet while they are performing in the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. The girls become very good friends. When their dark secrets are revealed, ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

San Francisco's Chinatown

San Francisco's Chinatown (the setting of Lisa See's China Dolls) is the oldest in the United States, and the largest confluence of Chinese people and culture outside of Asia. In 2013, the San Francisco Planning Department announced that Chinatown is "the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan" – some 15,000 residents live in just 20 square blocks. Although there are now four Chinatown areas in San Francisco, the main and original one, established in 1848, is located on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street. The Grant Avenue entrance is guarded by the Dragon Gate, erected in 1970, and the thoroughfare is lined with original 1920s streetlights shaped like golden dragons.

Chinatown's Dragon Gate Between the 1850s and 1900s, Chinatown was the ...

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