Shanghai Girls tells the story of two beautiful Chinese sisters, Pearl and May Chin, who are leading glamorous lives working as models in Shanghai. When their father gambles away all his money, he attempts to pay his debts by selling the girls to husbands who have come from America to look for Chinese wives. It’s 1937, however, and May and Pearl are modern women; they expect to make their own decisions and be allowed to choose their own husbands. Finding that this freedom has been taken away from them, they try to rebel against their arranged marriages, but are eventually forced to leave China behind and travel to Los Angeles to live with men they barely know. We then follow Pearl and May as they try to adapt to life in America, but find themselves facing a new set of challenges.
The story is set against a backdrop of the historical and political events taking place during the first half of the 20th century including the horrors of Japan’s invasion of China and later the rise of communism. Pearl and May’s story is very sad, with one tragedy followed by another, and only a few moments of happiness, so this is not always an easy book to read. There are also some plot twists and one or two big secrets, though it’s not too hard to guess what these are before they’re revealed. But above all, this is a story about the bond between two sisters.
Pearl, born in the Year of the Dragon, is very protective of her younger Sheep sister, May, who Pearl believes is their parents’ favourite. Throughout the story it’s obvious that May and Pearl love each other but there’s also a lot of jealousy and resentment – something more serious than normal sibling rivalry – that threatens to damage their relationship. I found I didn’t actually like either of them, though this didn’t stop me from enjoying the book (in fact the only character I really did like was Sam, Pearl’s husband). As the first-person narrator of the novel, Pearl was the sister I naturally tended to have more sympathy for. May seemed very selfish and shallow to me, but as I learned more about her I started to understand what caused her to behave the way she did and I saw that the relationship between the two sisters was more complex than I’d thought. Both characters had good points and bad points and I found both of them frustrating at times!
The only problem I had with this book was that the ending was not very satisfactory. It was obviously intended to be left on a cliffhanger so that you would have to read the sequel to find out what happens next. The sequel, Dreams of Joy, is out now and I’m hoping to start reading it soon, but I was still disappointed that this book didn’t have a proper ending.
This is the second of Lisa See’s historical fiction novels I’ve read. The first was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a story set in 19th century China, but I liked this one a lot more than Snow Flower. Have you read any of Lisa See’s books? Which ones have you enjoyed the most?