China Dolls by Lisa See

China Dolls Lisa See is a Chinese-American author whose books deal with various aspects of Chinese history and culture. I had mixed feelings about the first one I read, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I loved Shanghai Girls and its sequel Dreams of Joy, so I was looking forward to reading her new novel, China Dolls.

Beginning in 1938, China Dolls is a fictional account of three young women who meet at an audition for dancers at San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub.

First there’s Grace Lee, who grew up in a small town in Ohio – a town so small that, apart from her parents, Grace has never met another Chinese person and has never even tasted Chinese food. She has come to San Francisco to escape from her abusive father and is hoping to build a career for herself in show business.

Then there’s Helen Fong, whose family is one of the richest and most respected in Chinatown. Her strict parents disapprove of her decision to work in a nightclub…until Helen points out that she will be earning much more than in her current job at the Chinese Telephone Exchange. Helen appears to have led a sheltered life, but is hiding some secrets which she is reluctant to reveal even to her friends.

Finally, there’s Ruby Tom from Hawaii. Ruby, who is the most outgoing and flamboyant of the three, also has a big secret: although she has allowed everyone to think she is Chinese, she is actually Japanese. If the authorities learn the truth, Ruby could be in trouble, especially when anti-Japanese sentiment increases following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Three girls with very different personalities and from very different backgrounds! Despite having little in common, they are drawn together that day at the audition and become friends, helping and supporting each other as they try to fulfil their ambitions. As the months and years go by, though, the girls find that their friendship is tested by a series of lies and betrayals, disagreements and withheld secrets.

China Dolls was compelling enough to keep me interested right to the end but I found it quite disappointing after Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. The main reason for my disappointment was something which should have been the strong point of the book: the friendship between Grace, Helen and Ruby. It just wasn’t convincing at all! The three of them didn’t even seem to like each other and were certainly not ‘like the Three Musketeers’, as they claimed. They said and did some terrible things to each other and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just go their separate ways in life.

The structure of the novel, with the three girls taking turns to narrate chapters, was also a problem for me. I got the impression that the story Lisa See really wanted to write was Grace’s – she is the easiest character to like and identify with, and she seemed to get a few more chapters than the others too – so I think I would rather have had the entire book written from Grace’s perspective. Having said that, Ruby’s story had the potential to be the most interesting, particularly after Pearl Harbor, and she was also the only one whose narrative voice felt significantly different (filled with some of the lively slang of the period); the other two were interchangeable and sometimes it was easy to forget who was narrating.

Grace, as I’ve mentioned, was my favourite of the three girls but she didn’t have much competition as I really disliked both Helen and Ruby – particularly Helen, whom I never really felt I understood or could have any sympathy for, despite some of the ordeals she had been through. Of the novel’s other characters, only one or two play a significant part in the story, and the rest are just secondary – though I was interested to discover, after finishing the book, that some of the characters I’d assumed were fictional were actually people who really existed.

The historical backdrop of the story is excellent; everything feels thoroughly researched and we are given lot of great insights into the entertainment world of the 1930s and 1940s, in particular what it was like to work in a Chinese nightclub and the challenges facing the Chinese performers. The book deals with lots of serious issues – from racism and prejudice to domestic violence and wartime atrocities – but because the main characters were so shallow, I felt that these issues weren’t explored in as much depth as they could have been.

So, not a favourite Lisa See novel, but still worth reading for its depiction of Chinese American life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Frog Music This is the second book I’ve read by Emma Donoghue – the first was Room, which I enjoyed, and since then I’ve been wanting to try one of her historical fiction novels. This new one, Frog Music, is set in San Francisco in 1876 and is based on a true crime story.

Twenty-four-year-old Blanche Beunon, once a star of the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, is now a dancer in a San Francisco burlesque club. She lives in the city’s Chinatown with her lover, Arthur Deneve, and his friend – and former partner on the flying trapeze – Ernest Girard. One week in August, two newcomers enter their little circle. One of these is P’tit, Blanche and Arthur’s baby boy, reunited with his parents after a year of separation. Blanche has rarely even thought about her baby during his absence, but now she discovers what being a mother really means.

The other new arrival is a woman called Jenny Bonnet, just released from jail after being arrested for the crime of dressing in men’s clothes. Jenny, who makes her living from catching frogs and selling them to French and Chinese restaurants, is like nobody else Blanche has ever met and makes her think differently about herself and her life. But when Jenny is shot dead, Blanche is convinced that she herself was the intended victim. Can she find the murderer before he kills again and before she loses P’tit again forever?

The real life murder case on which Frog Music is based remains an unsolved crime to this day, but the solution Donoghue provides is believable and consistent with what we have learned about the personalities and motives of the characters involved. The author also includes a detailed Afterword in which she explains which of the characters and events in the story are factual and which are purely fictional.

While there are some very unpleasant, unlikeable people in this novel, I thought the central character, Blanche, was wonderful. Her personality is a mass of contradictions: she’s tough yet vulnerable, intelligent yet naïve, self-absorbed yet sensitive. She’s such a well drawn character and felt completely real. I loved her and desperately wanted her to find some real happiness. Her story is so sad at times – I don’t want to say too much, but the circumstances surrounding the reappearance of P’tit are shocking and heartbreaking; I found that part of the book quite painful to read. As for Jenny, she remains a secretive and mysterious character throughout the novel. It is only towards the end of the book that we (and Blanche) begin to see beneath her protective outer shell and are finally given some glimpses of the real Jenny Bonnet.

The sense of time and place is very strong. I’m not sure I’ve read a book set in 1870s San Francisco before and I found it a vivid, atmospheric setting. The action takes place during both a heat wave and an epidemic of smallpox and both have an impact on Blanche’s story. Another interesting element of the novel is the role of music. Many songs and rhymes are quoted from in the book and information on each of them is given in an appendix. I thought this really added something to the story, helping to provide context and historical background. As Blanche and the other main characters are French and often use French slang, there is a glossary provided at the back of the book too, if you need help in translating any unfamiliar words.

My only criticism of this book is that the way the story is structured could cause confusion. It follows two time periods – one in Blanche’s present, describing Jenny’s murder and its consequences; the other flashing back to the beginning of their friendship a month earlier. Gradually the two storylines converge until they are only a day or two apart and at this point it becomes slightly difficult to follow the chronological sequence of events. Sometimes we are given the date, but not always, so it’s not immediately clear which thread of the story we are reading.

One other thing I should mention is that as Blanche is an exotic dancer there are some quite graphic descriptions of her work. It was maybe a bit excessive, but I could appreciate that it was all part of who Blanche is and it would have been hard to convey the realities of her life without being explicit at times.

Frog Music is not a book that will appeal to everyone (though you could say the same about any book, I suppose) but I thought it was great and having enjoyed this one and Room I’ll be looking for more of Emma Donoghue’s books soon.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Victoria Jones has spent the first eighteen years of her life being moved from one foster home and care home to another. On her eighteenth birthday she is released from the care system and sent out into the world with no qualifications and no skills other than her knowledge of flowers and what they mean. When Victoria is offered a job as a florist’s assistant she finally has a chance to turn her life around, but first she needs to confront a secret from her past.

Interspersed with this storyline, we are given flashbacks to an earlier period in Victoria’s life, when she was nine years old and living with one of her foster parents, Elizabeth. There are hints that something traumatic happened during this time, but we don’t find out what it was until near the end of the book. I liked the way the story was told in short, alternating chapters, divided almost equally between Victoria’s present and her past because structuring the novel in this way meant we could slowly piece together a vivid picture of Victoria and the moments that shaped her life. It also helped sustain some suspense and mystery throughout the book, making us wonder exactly what happened while Victoria was living with Elizabeth.

I did enjoy The Language of Flowers, but I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if Victoria had been a character I had liked or could relate to in any way. I can appreciate that the author was trying to show the effects of a troubled childhood on a person’s emotions and social interactions, and I did sympathise with Victoria – I could see why she was so insecure and why she was afraid to get too close to anyone. I don’t really know anything about the US foster care system (or fostering in general) and while I’m sure the majority of foster parents genuinely want to give the child in their care a loving home, it’s sad to think there might really be children like Victoria who have had some bad experiences. So I could understand why Victoria behaved the way she did, but she continued to frustrate me throughout the entire book and I never quite managed to connect with her at all.

On a more positive note, I did love the ‘language of flowers’ aspect of the book. I really like the idea of people secretly communicating using flowers. I thought the ways in which Vanessa Diffenbaugh incorporated the flower meanings into the novel were cleverly done and as I have absolutely no knowledge of the subject myself, I appreciated the inclusion of Victoria’s Flower Dictionary at the back of the book!

For me, then, I think The Language of Flowers was a book where I liked the concept of the story better than the story itself. Don’t let me put you off reading it though, because I know not all readers will have the problem I had with Victoria – and apart from that, this was not a bad book at all.