Monday, October 12, 2009

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Lisa See is an author that can portray the sights, smells, and sounds of a story with such compelling detail that the reader is pulled instantly into the scenes she paints with her words. Her latest novel, Shanghai Girls, follows the story of two sisters from China whose lives take them on a journey from an upper-class, comfortable life prior to the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937 China, to interrogations at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco, then to living in Chinatown in the Hollywood area.

See writes the historical novel through the eyes of Pearl, the college-educated, multilingual older sister. The story describes Chinese cultural values and customs from Pearl's perspective as the daughter of a seemingly wealthy businessman, and later as an immigrant to America. In Shanghai, the sisters live in a household complete with servants, a cook, a gardener, and a father with a tragic problem. The belief in Chinese astrology, herbal medicines, honoring ancestors, living as an extended family, and respecting the elders in the house were some of the cultural details that See utilized to show Chinese family life throughout the entire story, regardless of the continent on which Pearl lived. Pearl's world shatters when the Japanese attack Shanghai and she witnesses the atrocities of war first-hand. The brutality of war, its aftermath, and the events leading to their escape portray the depth of Pearl's pain in unforgettable detail, yet is without melodrama.

Throughout the story the relationship between the sisters and their lives after marriage in an extended family with their in-laws, is interesting to read and will be familiar to those from Eastern cultures, such as Indian, as both cultures share many similarities. The circumstances that lead them to America and the 'secrets' that the sisters share will keep the reader engaged until the end of the story. The sibling rivalry with concurrent intense loyalty and love that the sisters have towards each other is very moving, and adds layers to the depth of the story.

See focuses on the feelings and experiences of both of the sisters, and other Chinese immigrants, legal and illegal, that try to adjust into a very different America that existed prior to World War II, and immediately after. The sacrifices that were made by Pearl and others to survive in America by adapting and trying to find their place in society, while still not being able to deny the pull of wanting to return someday to settle in China, even after spending decades in another country are feelings to which many immigrants can relate. See uses historical events unfolding in China and America after World War II to illustrate the conflicts between the views of the first and second generation immigrants. These universal feelings of generational discord, rebellion, and the development of social causes will be familiar to many readers. Pearl and her family lived in an America that feared communism, and everyone was suspicious of anyone with Asian features because it was difficult to distinguish between Chinese allies and Japanese enemies. See details the unrest and fear in the Chinese community during the time that Japanese internment camps were set up and arsonists set fires to Chinese shops.

Within the historical events taking place, the story of Pearl, her sister May, and their extended family is a very absorbing read.
Readers and fans of See's previous novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, will not be disappointed. See delivered another beautifully written, epic story that begs to be continued in a sequel.

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