Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

My life right now is busy, yet most of the time I still feel a little like I’m not doing enough. Like if someone were to ask me what I did today, I wouldn’t actually have much to tell him. Homework takes up hours of my time, but I’ve also done a bit of baking and moviewatching. Music is a constant. Has anyone ever heard of Renaissance? They’re rather hard to find- I have the CDs because my mom had them recorded from the vinyls.

The reason I mention this is that I would like to be able to talk a little bit about my week outside of books before I get into the book, because the book will be the bulk of the post. I have a book cover to design, a paper to write, and a class to go to in an hour and a half. But for now, I would like to give this book a proper goodbye.

So, this is a historical novel which takes place between 1937 and 1957, showing us the bulk of the lives of the Pearl and May Chin, young sisters from Shanghai. When the story begins, Pearl is 21 and May is 18, and both enjoy their well-to-do lives as upper-class beautiful girls.

To say they’re ‘beautiful girls’ doesn’t just mean they’re girls who are beautiful- it’s actually their titles, because both Pearl and May are models whom artists will paint to sell products. They are carefree and happy, and they love the magic of Shanghai and their gifted lives.

Then, things go wrong, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a book.

Their father, a greedy man with little compassion in his heart, has gambled away the family’s wealth and now must pay off a debt to the notorious Green Gang. His only option is to arrange marriages for Pearl and May to the son’s of a Chinese-American man named Old Man Louie, who will then take responsibility for his debts. Pearl and May, however, are modern girls, and don’t wish to follow their husbands from China, their beloved home, to San Francisco, where they are hardly welcome.

Meanwhile, we are constantly absorbing hints that all is not well in the neighborhood- things like dead babies in the street, men starving to death pulling rickshaws for hours every day, and food that must be avoided in case it’s been tampered with. These are all things that Pearl and May see around them and yet refuse to acknowledge, because as upper-class women, it isn’t their concern.

Very suddenly, without any warning, it becomes too dangerous to stay in China, and Pearl and May are forced to go to San Francisco, where they are told their father-in-law has great wealth and will keep them safe.

There were two reasons behind my choosing this novel to read: one is that I absolutely adore culture shock novels, where someone for some reason has to leave their home country and learn how to make due in a new country with new beliefs and expectations that they know nothing about, and how they must grow accustomed to it. I love these books. The other reasons is that it’s a sister book- the most important relationship, in a novel rich with characters and ties and love, was always the one between May and Pearl, two sisters, but completely different. More-or-less similar to sisters from The Summer We Read Gatsby, May is carefree and silly, even once they arrive in America, while Pearl must be the responsible one who, alongside her mother-in-law, must take responsibility for the house, her husband’s happiness, and producing a Louie grandson.

I. Loved. This. Book. THIS BOOK is raw, honest, and tragic. These two sister are forcibly shoved from their comfortable live in Shanghai and after that, it’s just one tragedy on top of the other. Each bitterness they swallow is cushioned by refuge sought in their extended family, whom they love more and more as time passes, and the hard work they must perform to keep their household running.

I don’t even know how to describe the magnificence of this novel- my heart was in my throat the entire time, yet I was never WAITING for the shoe to drop. There were a few shocks, yet only one was truly unexpected- the others had been hinted at through the book, and their final revelation was like a blunt force driven slowly against the foundation the family tries to build.

I was able to read this at a rate of about 50 pages per day, because whenever I had a free moment, THIS is what I wanted to be doing. It’s not a quick read, but so much happens that you don’t notice. There is SO MUCH going on on a single page, you’re never tired, it’s never tedious, and it’s absolutely never boring. You become amazingly attached to each and every one of the characters, even Old Man Loui, grouchy Yen-yen, and the boy-husband Vern. You ache with each sadness they bear, you WANT their happy ending.

All that said, this is absolutely not a happy book. Very little good things happen to Pearl and May, but they each have their blessings to count. Their lives are humble, but they’re as elegant as they could ever have wished for in America. They began with nothing, and by the final page they had much to account for their twenty years as wives and mothers. But, there is some graphic content, a lot of anger, violence, and blood, lies, confusion, shocking revelations, and hurt feelings. The ending isn’t happy. But it is incredible.

I would definitely read this book again if I ever had the chance (yes, I do reread books) when I didn’t have a sizable pile on my table. This week has been magnificent- books have been falling into my lap. I even had one recommended by my brother, who hardly reads. I had a conversation with a substitute teacher about how well I like books with a culture-shock theme, and the next week she leant me a new one. I have another one from the library. And goddammit, I’m still waiting for V’s to arrive in the mail. I’m rather distressed that I don’t have it yet.

I have class in 50 minutes, and my largest responsibility this weekend is an English essay that must be revised and edited. If I have a chance, I would be excited to get my next book started tonight. Either way, it probably won’t take me this long to finish. But but. I’ll see you when I see you, right?

Oh, forgot to say, I’ve added this book to my recommendations page, so you should go check it out and choose a book you haven’t read. Then read it. And let me know what you thought, because remember, those are my favorite books in existence.

Published in: on October 21, 2010 at 4:12 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Downsiders is culture shock! Well, halfway through….. ish. But yeah!! Talen is thrust from Downside life to Topside life, while Linsdy longs to be a Downsider (though she shoudn’t even know they exist). READ IT.


      • o.o what is this book you speak of and why don’t I ever see you on MSN even when I know you are on??

  2. My friend, you have to read Memoirs of a Geisha. I know you never read books I recommend you (don’t lie, you have yet to read a single thing I recommend you) but if you like culture shock and oriental themes and endings that could be construed as both happy and sad? Then you have to read this one. Arthur Golden is a genius. And one of the few male writers who has an incredible female voice in this novels. You would like it, I think.

    This sounds interesting but I would never read it. I’m not huge on historical novels (more films) and you know me and sad endings… whenever there’s a book with a sad ending I usually avoid it. I get far too involved with the characters (not saying you don’t, just making a point) and if it’s a sad ending I have been known to go into bouts of silence and mini-depressive non-eating stages. So I shall avoid this book and just let you gush about it to me a little longer till you get to your next “big book” and gush about that one too =)

    Looking forward to your next entry my friend. Hope you’re feeling better soon, being sick is only cool when you don’t have anything else to do.

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