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.

Sunday Salon – 4/5/09

img_2438Good Morning!  I hope everyone is feeling refreshed and relaxed today!

We woke up to a whole lot of soggy toilet paper on our lawn this morning.  Even my car in the driveway was wrapped in TP.  This is the second night in a row.. paybacks, I suppose, for my kids’ antics of a couple of nights ago when they did the same thing to their friends.  They’re excited and are calling and texting their friends to see who did this.  No one is ‘fessing up.

img_2436We had a mid life-wake up call this week.  On Thursday, my husband, a big strong man who thinks he’s still in his 20s but is really twice that, had sudden chest pain.  He said it felt like a lightning bolt through his chest and into his back that lasted for 10-15 seconds, then after that what felt like a sore muscle in his back.  I was out doing my daily 4 mile walk with a friend when it happened, but when I came home he was standing there, pale and scared.  My first thought was ‘heart attack’.  I said- we better go to the hospital, and he said- I don’t have time!  I have too much to do! But I insisted, so off we went.  

At the hospital they took him immediately (now THAT was a first!), put him on oxygen, took all his vitals, drew blood, did an EKG.  They take chest pain very seriously.  Over the course of 6 hours in the ER he had 2 EKGs, a chest x-ray, 3 blood draws, and a stress test, and it was determined that he did not have a heart attack (whew!  dodged a bullet!).  They said the problem appears to be muscular-skeletal in nature- his heart and lungs are fine. I asked if it could be a muscle pull, because the day before he had been lifting and moving furniture into his new office.  I said to my husband (in front of the doctor), “Maybe you’re a little too old to be lifting heavy oak desks, what do you think?” and he just gave me a look, like- mind your bizness, woman.  

Seriously, though- he doesn’t get enough sleep, eats crappy food, doesn’t exercise, works long hours, and is constantly stressed.  That’s a recipe for disaster at his age. I do the best I can but I can’t force him to act like an adult and take care of himself. I hope this episode will be the catalyst for him to at least think about a healthier lifestyle.  I’m not sure, though, since he’s been working in San Diego all weekend.  I can’t monitor if he’s eating, sleeping, etc. when he’s not even here!  I do know that he and a couple of the guys went out for a big steak dinner at 8 pm last night, and I’m sure cocktails were included, so..  no major changes yet. Fingers crossed for next week.

So.. reading.  Let’s see.  I finished The Mechanics of Falling by Catherine Brady this week for an upcoming TLC tour stop.  It’s a top-notch short story collection.  Then I started Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.  I love her writing.  LOVE it.  I love being wrapped up in the little worlds her books create.  I can’t wait to see her at the LA Times Festival of Books.  She’s on a fiction panel on Saturday called Window on the World, along with authors Vanina Marsot, Muriel Barbery, and Jonathan Rabb.  

I’m also reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone aloud to my youngest.  This child drives me crazy..  her AR reading level is the 2nd highest in her fourth grade class, yet she insists on reading the Magic Treehouse series and Katie Kazoo books.. way beneath her level.  She doesn’t like to read- to her it is a big chore, so she goes for whatever is easy.  Her teacher requires 20 minutes of reading a day as part of their homework and she wants the students to get 50 AR points by the end of the year, but the books my daughter reads are one and two points each, so she’s not even close to her 50 points.  The Harry Potter books are 12 points each but she didn’t think she’d like them- she thought they’d be too hard (almost anything is going to be harder than what she’s been reading).  I’m reading the first one to her in the hopes that she’ll get hooked, and so far it seems to be working.  I overheard her very animatedly telling my mother about the mail delivery system with the owls in HP so I guess she’s becoming interested.  

OH!  I have winners to announce!  I almost forgot!  The second winner of The Blue Notebook is Zibilee from Raging Bibliomania– congratulations!  And the (long overdue) winner of Hope’s Boy is Ti of Book Chatter and Other Stuff- congratulations!   (Ti’s in Palm Springs this weekend so she’s probably a little too busy to care about winning a book.)

Well that’s it for me.  What are you reading this week?