“Mama stares at Baba, but what can she say? My face is pretty enough—some might even say lovely—but not as luminescent as the pearl I’m named for. I tend to blush easily. Beyond that, my cheeks capture the sun. When I turned five, my mother began rubbing my face and arms with pearl creams, and mixing ground pearls into my morning jook—rice porridge—hoping the white essence would permeate my skin. It hasn’t worked. Now my cheeks burn red—exactly what my father hates. I shrink down into my chair. I always slump when I’m near him, but I slump even more on those occasions when Baba takes his eyes off my sister to look at me. I’m taller than my father, which he loathes. We live in Shanghai, where the tallest car, the tallest wall, or the tallest building sends a clear and unwavering message that the owner is a person of great importance. I am not a person of importance.”
It is 1937. Shanghai is a modern but peaceful city. The Chin family routine has yet to be disturbed. But Baba is harboring a tragic secret and the Japanese are just around the corner, ready to invade. Lisa See’s new novel, Shanghai Girls, is the story of what happens next when lies borne of shame convey unfortunate and fantastic consequences.
After Baba’s mistakes are revealed, sisters Pearl and May Chin are forced from their happy-go-lucky life as “beautiful girls” of Shanghai to one of great uncertainty as wives to two Chinese brothers living in California. The marriages are arranged and the sisters arrive in the US with secrets of their own. If and how the girls assimilate will depend on how truthful they are with each other and what they can hide from their new family.
See revives the theme of sisterhood from previous novels with a relatively contemporary twist in Shanghai Girls and faithful readers may find the departure somewhat disconcerting; although the new novel is suffused with traditional Chinese cultural, the ancient ghosts found in See’s Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan have been replaced with the visceral realities of WWII. However, the brutal Japanese attack on Shanghai and the subsequent rejection of the Chinese people in America provide an engaging and historical substratum for the trials and tribulations of the Chin sisters during the years 1937 – 1957, and See gives us a dark look behind the US Confession Program imposed on Chinese immigrants to America during the 1950’s.
Also reminiscent of her earlier novels, See’s protagonists learn a good deal about themselves, love and life in general as they mature, and it is precisely this evolution of character which See brings to the page in a way that is too often missing in 21st century novels. Combined with her mastery of research, See’s character development and commitment to the verisimilitude of Chinese culture have produced an entertaining and endearing novel.
Lisa See is the author of the bestselling memoir On Gold Mountain and the novels Flower Net, a national bestseller and NYTimes Notable Book that was on the Los Angeles Times Best Books List for 1997 and an Edgar award nominee; The Interior; Dragon Bones; the internationally acclaimed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, both of which received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly; and the nonfiction book, Half & Half. Currently serving as a Los Angeles City Commissioner on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Monument Authority, Ms. See was named the 2001 National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women and received the Fall 2003 Chinese American Museum’s History Award.
Shanghai Girls, 336 pp.
Random House, May 26, 2009