Book review: Shanghai Girls: a novel by Lisa See

Synopsis: In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai Girls.

The first chapter of Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls introduces us to the family of our protagonist and narrator, Pearl. She and her sister, May, are beautiful girls in 1937 Shanghai, and they’re socialites. Similar to our Hiltons or Kardashians, they live a life of leisure, party at night, and pose provocatively for artists; and although the first chapter is filled with details of what it is like to be a rich, beautiful young girl in Shanghai, their bourgeois existence is shallow and uninteresting. Luckily, Lisa See’s purpose for this portrayal is to set up a huge contrast to what happened to the girls’ lives later, and that is when the novel truly comes alive.

The inciting incident is when Pearl and May learn that their supposedly modern father has arranged marriages for them with the sons of a merchant in the United States. Avoiding clich├ęs, the marriages are not where the conflicts arise. The conflicts arise for the women because of all of the political turmoil that happens to the Chinese in the novel’s time frame of twenty tears. From the Japanese occupation of China to life in Los Angeles during the Communist scare, See’s novel covers some of the most tumultuous moments of Chinese and Chinese-American history, and she gives her readers an insight to those eras while equally engrossing them with a tale of two sisters whose lives ended up nothing like what they had expected when they were young and carefree.

This novel is thought-provoking on so many levels. On a human level, it tells a story about what it would feel like to have everything and then nothing. What a humbling experience that would be and how scary it is that in a moment everything could be taken from you. On a historical level, it reminds its readers how in times of fear those in power can easily terrorize minority groups. During one period of time, it was the Japanese that were put in internment camps, and the Chinese felt safe. Years later, people were coming after the Chinese, accusing them of communist ties. In the present, we can see this same time of fear, and we can see certain groups being profiled. This novel is a powerful reminder to never accept this type of treatment to any group because one day, your group can be targeted.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel. It appeals to those who love history or political science, and it appeals to anyone who enjoys stories about family and overcoming adversity.