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.


Booking Through Thursday: Favorites

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1. Do you have a favorite author?

2. Have you read everything he or she has written?

3. Did you LIKE everything?

4. How about a least favorite author?

5. An author you wanted to like, but didn’t?


I have a lot of favorites, but my MOST favorite (today) would have to be Khaled Hosseini. I read The Kite Runner for my book club in July 2007 and I declared it to be my favorite book ever, or at least in my top 3 (it’s so hard to decide on these things). I waited a long while to read his 2nd novel but finally picked it up, and today I finished it.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is my NEW favorite book ever! Without a doubt, it’s my favorite book I’ve read this year. I’m still processing it, but will write my review soon. If you’ve read it, what did you think? I cried like a baby in the last 5 pages, ugh. Thankfully, I was alone with tears streaming down my face. It was so, soooooo good. I would happily and greedily read anything this man has written. He can’t write fast enough for me.

I also just love Lisa See, Amy Tan, Frank McCourt, Jodi Picoult (I know, I know). Also Sue Grafton, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King when I was a young adult, and so many others. I can’t think of an author I wanted to like, but didn’t.

A least favorite author? That’s a tough one. I can think of a few books I didn’t care for, but I wouldn’t be ready to write the author off after one bad book. Then again, I probably wouldn’t pick up another by the same author if I didn’t like the first one I read.

Incidentally, A Thousand Splendid Suns came out in paperback last week. I’ve had it in hardcover since last Christmas but wasn’t ready to read it then. I didn’t want to be making too many comparisons between it and The Kite Runner.

What about you? Who are your favorites?

Authors: They’re just like US! #3

The first question I posed to authors was, “What are you currently reading?”  (click HERE to read that post).  Next I asked, “What was the last book you gave up on, and why?” (click HERE to read that post).

This time I’d like to know…


Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters:   Harper Lee, George EliotJane AustenF. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Tolstoy, Barbara PymGraham Greene, Alice McDermottJane SmileyGraham SwiftErnest GainesAnn PatchettRichard Russo, Anne Tyler and Sue Miller. For starters. And Agatha Christie!

Jennie Shortridge , author of Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe:  Old and formative favorites: Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Walker, John Irving and Anne Tyler’s older books. 

Beth Fehlbaum, author of Courage in Patience:  Chris Crutcher, TK Kenyon, Sherman Alexie, Derek Armstrong, Mark Spragg, Karen Harrington,  Sarah Vowell, Cheryl Kaye Tardif, David Sedaris, Al Franken, Laurie Halse Anderson, Todd Strasser, Joyce McDonald, Anne Lamott. 

Linda Merlino, author of Belly of the Whale:  A varied spectrum of favorites, I would begin with new voices like those of fellow Kunati authors, Karen Harrington, Cheryl K Tardiff and Carole O’Dell, others are classics: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Eudora Welty and Fitzgerald and popular: Amy Tan and Stephen King to name two.

Megan Crane, author of Names My Sisters Call Me:  I don’t really have favorites, because how could I choose?  I’m currently obsessed with Richelle Mead, Marian Keyes (as ever), and Loretta Chase.  But that’s just this month!

Jasmin Rosenberg, author of How the Other Half Hamptons: I’m a huge fan of NY society writers – from Jay McInerney, to Tom Wolfe, to Candace Bushnell, to as far back as Herman Wouk (Marjorie Morningstar). 

Edward Hardy, author of Keeper and Kid:  It’s a really long list but here are a few: Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Grace Paley, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Patrick O’Brian.

Alan Cheuse, author of To Catch the Lightning:  Contemporary? Dozens and dozens… 
Le Guin, Murakami, Doris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks, 
Richard Ford, Richard Bausch, James Houston, 
Ma Jian, Chinese writer in exile in London…and more…. 


Mathias Freese, author of Down to a Sunless Sea:  Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ, Saint Francis and Report to Greco, all astonishingly written. Canetti’s Crowds and Power. one of the great books of the 20th century and anything by Krishnamurti, to wit, The Flight of the Eagle, on awareness. 

Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony:  F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Lorrie Moore, Tobias Wolff.  But ask me on another day, and I could come up with seven others I like just as much. 

Susan Woodring  , author of Springtime on Mars:  I love John Irving, Richard Yates, Ann Hood, Charles Baxter, Ron Rash, and Andre Dubus, among others. 

Doreen Orion, author of Queen of the Road:   Elizabeth Gilbert (I loved EAT PRAY LOVE and call myself the Elizabeth Gilbert Anti-Christ because I had to be dragged kicking and screaming on our QUEEN OF THE ROAD trip). I also love Jane Hamilton (especially MAP OF THE WORLD), Bill Bryson, David Sedaris. 

Daniel Putkowski, author of An Island Away In Crime, James Ellroy but Matt Rees is new addition in the same category. Tawni O’Dell and Pete Hamill in contemporary fiction. Oldie but goodie in travel: H.V. Morton. The man lived large and wide long before the likes of Anthony Bourdain who is another great read in the same genre.

Do you share any favorite authors with any of these authors?  Next time we’ll talk about favorite childhood books.  Stay tuned!