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.
24 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.
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