Currently Reading: Lisa See’s “Shanghai Girls”

Earlier this summer, I read Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan because it will be a Hollywood movie in 2011. See’s current novel is Shanghai Girls, released last year in May.

Snow Flower is probably See’s masterpiece so I was willing to read another See novel, one still too new for us to know its ultimate impact. I caught a glimpse of a review on Amazon.com of Shanghai Girls (SH Girls) that was quite negative in terms that See tried, but failed, to recreate the bond between two women that was so real and convincing in Snow Flower. I got the impression the reviewer thought SH Girls was shallow.

I couldn’t get into the novel at the beginning. It felt horribly lightweight and not altogether believable that such superficial glamour girls and their society existed, even in Shanghai’s heyday between imperialism and Communism. It seemed to me that Lisa See’s modern senses crept into the characters and I felt the anachronism distasteful. However, if you don’t take the details literally, then the Chin girls are a pair of sisters with a saga of good and bad fortune ahead of them. That, on the other hand, is believable. It is entirely all-too-familiar the scenario of beautiful, modern women leaving cosmopolitan Shanghai in the 1930s (or Hong Kong in the 1970s, like my mother) and finding a far different Chinese society and life for them in so-called Gold Mountain (金山), America or Canada.

Like in Snow Flower, the narration of SH Girls comes from the point of view of the ugly duckling sister/friend. She narrates her own life pitifully and observes the other’s activities with a tinge of jealousy and a whole lack of empathy. Pearl (the narrator) is the older sister to May and their personalities are handily summed up by Lisa See with their Chinese zodiac signs, Dragon and Sheep, respectively. Pearl thinks she has the toughest breaks but May’s ability to handle her breaks and jump on opportunities seems lost on her. Together, they share a huge (huge) secret. Other important characters, Pearl’s husband Sam and daughter Joy, are also characterized by their zodiac signs, Ox and Tiger, and their relationships to Pearl as a Dragon. Sam is further characterized by the spectacular iron fan of a chest he has; I feel for his character since he’s so obviously under-appreciated,  like many a real husband. The story stays gritty, with a lot of detail of the family’s struggles in America, confined to Chinatown, running businesses morning -noon-night, and holding down their identities. The way the family holds together and the dynamics are realistic and complicated while they could easily have been written following stereotypes.

The “twist” occurs when the plot comes to the McCarthyism era of high anti-Communist sentiment. I’d rather not have to read about the back-stabbing and pain piled onto the struggles they faced all their lives. Their secret is blown out of the water, things fall horribly apart, and the sisters who were torn apart, start to mend again because they remember they’ve only got each other.

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There is something that keeps me from “devouring” Lisa See’s novels, although they are relatively easy to read. By reading Snow Flower from 2005 and Shanghai Girls from 2009, each of which contains sagas that do not overlap in time, I feel like I’m well-introduced and do not need to read more Lisa See for now.

The next novel I’m reading breaks from the Asian American Literature summer: Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood. It’s complex and dense and surely cannot be summarized in my now-formulaic “book report” blog post.

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