Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

51a7mjkefwl_sl500_aa240_Shanghai Girls by Lisa See is the tale of two sisters.   The book opens in Shanghai in 1937, where Pearl and May are “beautiful girls” who model for an artist and whose faces appear on calendars and advertisements selling everything from soap to cigarettes.  They make money, but it all goes into supporting their expensive lifestyle.  They are sophisticated, educated girls who wear gorgeous clothing, stay out late, go to clubs, and take full advantage of their status in this cosmopolitan city.  They are blissfully ignorant of the rapidly changing political climate and the war with Japan looming on the horizon. 

At home, they are just girls, albeit girls living a privileged life, with cooks and servants and lovely furnishings.  Daughters are worthless in China except for their value as marriage material.  Pearl, however, is in love with her “beautiful girl” artist ZG, and May loves Tommy.  They’ve made a modern assumption that they will marry for love, as they do in the west, and are shocked when their father announces that their marriages have been arranged, to help the family. “Baba”, a wealthy businessman, has had a reversal of fortune.  His gambling debts are mounting and he sees no other way out but to marry off his daughters to the highest bidder. 

dsc0325824 hours later, the girls are married women.  Their new husbands, Sam and Vern (only 14!), and their family live in Los Angeles.  The plan is that the girls will tie up loose ends, take a boat to Hong Kong to meet their new husbands, then travel with them to Los Angeles.   Pearl and May, still in denial, never get on the boat for Hong Kong.  Baba is upset but thinks, “What can I do?”  Life goes on pretty much as before, with the girls adjusting their lifestyle only slightly and trying to make more money. 

But then the war breaks out.  They get caught up in the bombings but manage to escape Shanghai.   Threatened by collectors of Baba’s debt, they flee.  Leaving the city proves extremely difficult, and as they make their way out of the country, they are broken both physically and spiritually.  They finally arrive in Los Angeles after much hardship and make a life with their husbands and extended family as immigrants in Chinatown.  Pearl and May, with their love of western clothing and sensibilities, are made to wear the traditional clothing of China for the tourists and must stay within the confines of the community.   Pearl works and works, harboring little resentments against the more carefree May.  They struggle with everyday life, and nothing is as they expected it to be.   

As in Lisa See’s earlier novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, there is a major misunderstanding between the main characters that threatens to destroy their relationship and propels much of what happens in the book.  May and Pearl, like all siblings, view their shared past differently.  The revelatory moment, when they each see things clearly and understand the others’ perspective, comes late in the novel.   

I’m a huge Lisa See fan and was completely swept away by Shanghai Girls. This is a book about survival and just how much a person will endure for the people they love.  It is also a captivating history lesson about the difficulties faced by our immigrant population.  The book is so rich in detail, lush in its descriptive language.  Lisa See is an expert at describing and exploring women’s relationships, making this a natural choice for a book club.  My only complaint is the cliffhanger ending.. but then, maybe that leaves the door open for a sequel.  I hope so!  

Shanghai Girls will be released on May 26th.  Many thanks to Random House for sending me an advanced readers copy.  

For more information on Lisa See, please visit her website.

29 Responses

  1. Fantastic review! I am really looking forward to this book.

  2. I’ve had “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” on my shelf for months. I really need to get to it sometime soon. Then maybe I can move on to this one. Great review!

  3. Great review. I’m looking forward to reading this book. I loved Snow Flower. I never finished Peony – something about it just didn’t grab me. I think this one is going to be another love it book.

  4. Wonderful review, Lisa.

  5. Thanks for the teaser and recommendation. I loved Snow Flower, so I’ll be looking forward to this one also.

  6. Man, you’ve been getting all the good books lately! I still have Peony in Love in my TBR pile. I really need to read it soon. Great review!

  7. Sounds like an interesting story. I’m almost positive that I’ve read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan but I don’t remember much about it.

  8. I skimmed over the description to get to the bottom line – so glad you loved this one! I am looking forward to it.

  9. Great review Lisa! This was one arc I was hoping to get but never did. Glad you liked it.

  10. Excellent review! I really want to read this book. It sounds fascinating. Glad you enjoyed it.

  11. Oh, Dude, I want this one because I just finished “Snow Flower…” and adored it! Thank you so much for introducing me to Lisa See. You have outstanding readerly sensibilities! (I need to read ‘Peony…” too).

  12. I’m so glad you enjoyed this book. I’ll be reading it soon, and I can’t wait. I’ve had my eye on Lisa See’s books for a while, so when I received this one, I was thrilled!

  13. […] on spring break this week, I didn’t get a whole lot of reading done.  I reviewed one book (Shanghai Girls) and read another one (Foreign Tongue- not yet reviewed), but that was […]

  14. What a great review. I have this one to review as well, but planned to read it in a couple of weeks just prior to its release. So happy to see you enjoyed this one!

  15. […] kids on spring break this week, I didn’t get a whole lot of reading done. I reviewed one book (Shanghai Girls) and read another one (Foreign Tongue- not yet reviewed), but that was […]

  16. […] kids on spring break this week, I didn’t get a whole lot of reading done.  I reviewed one book (Shanghai Girls) and read another one (Foreign Tongue- not yet reviewed), but that was […]

  17. […] of us went to Fiction: Window on the World with Lisa See (Shanghai Girls, Snow Flower, Peony in Love), Jonathon Rabb (Rosa, Shadow and Light), Vanina Marsot (Foreign […]

  18. […] of us went to Fiction: Window on the World with Lisa See (Shanghai Girls, Snow Flower, Peony in Love), Jonathon Rabb (Rosa, Shadow and Light), Vanina Marsot (Foreign […]

  19. […] of us went to Fiction: Window on the World with Lisa See (Shanghai Girls, Snow Flower, Peony in Love), Jonathon Rabb (Rosa, Shadow and Light), Vanina Marsot (Foreign […]

  20. I snagged a copy of this one too and I’m almost finished. I really like it though.🙂

  21. An incredible story;as great as your other books.My daughter and I are devoted fans and have read all your books.SHANGAI GIRLS is riveting,historical and filled with pain and pathos.CONGRATS on your steady talent.

  22. Do you know what the Chinese words in the cigarette advertisement say? Literally (from right to left) it goes something like “The two of them say: ‘suck here, suck there and he’s still the best’ “.

  23. […] Click Here To See What People Are Saying About It! Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Nia Long & Rockmond Dunbar: ’Soul Food’ Actors on Board for ’Fatherhood’Tim McGraw writes a children’s book about girls […]

  24. I really really loved this book and also Snowflower and the Secret Fan.
    It really is a story of family devotion.
    I learned so much about Chinatown in LA and the prejudice against the Chinese.

    I am in need of questions for my book club… Help!!!

  25. […] reviews (most of which are more positive than this one) She Is Too Fond of Books Devourer of Books Books on the Brain Booking Mama CaribousMom Peeking between the Pages A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook S. […]

  26. I just finished this book. I absolutely loved it. It takes you on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, but like you mentioned, it is an eye opener to the Chinese culture back in those days and what many immigrants went through trying to come into this country while escaping their own. I’m looking forward to reading more of Lisa See.

    Great review.

  27. I loved ! Very interesting..realistic in the historical and cultural perspectives..and downcast, yet true. Hope a sequel is being written.. Thank you, Lisa See! I will have to read the previously written books. They’re sure to be good.

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