Every now and again I will find a book that sinks its fangs into, not just my mind and heart, but also into my soul. It will leave behind such a profound effect on the way that I perceive life and people, changing me and shaping me into a person who is more aware of the world around me. Shanghai Girls is such a novel. It is an exquisitely enrapturing, forthright, and heartrending piece of literature, written by the talented Lisa See.
Shanghai Girls is about two sisters, Pearl and May, who reside in Shanghai. They are the epitome of youth with their lush beauty, fashionable clothes, and presumptuous attitudes. While they aren’t ridiculously wealthy, they come from a family that would have been considered to be rather well off for the time. When their father begins to struggle financially, he procures husbands for his daughters, hoping that it would help him with his debt, as well as give his daughters a better life. Pearl and May consider themselves to be “modern” ladies who no longer have a need to follow traditional Chinese customs, such as arranged marriages. When they flee from their cultural obligations, a string of events gets put into motion that creates a gripping and compelling story that will span the course of twenty years.
There are quite a lot of themes in this novel that come together to create a richly detailed and psychologically heartfelt portrait. One of these themes that really felt close to home for me was the American immigrant experience, which was immensely horrifying during this time period, especially for Chinese immigrants. These young girls find their way to a country that is supposed to be the land of the free, but instead they are greeted with another face of imprisonment and mental interrogation that follows them long after they began to build a life in America. You can read any history textbook and read about the Japanese war with China, as well as Mao’s rise to power with communism. When you have a background that, in one way or another, relates to things that people fear, that becomes your identity; it becomes the only face that others see when they look at you. Unfortunately, during the 1950s a lot of Chinese immigrants were looked down upon and suspected of being spies or communists. What the textbooks don’t tell you is how this type of treatment and prejudice affects the innocents. How it can destroy a family, or completely tear down a person’s will to live.
Shanghai Girls illustrates this abject experience with excruciating detail. It provides us, the readers, with an intimate and uncensored perspective on what it feels like to be that person who is prejudiced based solely on something you cannot change, like being Chinese. One of the elements that I really appreciated about See’s writing is that she does this without being offensive, or derogatory. Everything is stated relative to Pearl’s point-of-view (as she is the narrator) and befitting to the time period. There are no unnecessary implications or distasteful revelations behind these girls’ experiences. It just is, which in its simplicity becomes that much more powerful.
Another theme that we see starting to sprout at the beginning of the novel, and then later blooms with its finale, is one of identity crisis. As a foreigner raising her child in unfamiliar territory, Pearl finds herself split down the middle. A part of her wishes to instill her traditions and culture into her kid so that they don’t forget their background, their roots. As a parent she wants her children to know, understand, and accept who they are, where they come from. But with living in unknown lands, she also wants to make sure that they don’t struggle the same ways that she did for being different. Pearl wants them to assimilate in hopes of making their lives better and easier as they grow up in an environment vastly different than her own. I found this to be a very fascinating aspect of the book. In many ways, I felt like I was looking into my own mother’s private thoughts and fears. It’s one of those things that is so very thought-provoking in nature that it changes you; the second time during my reading experience where I knew my outlook on the world had begun to shift a bit.
Underneath everything, all of the experiences that Pearl goes through, she’s always shared every single step of the journey with one person: May, her younger sister. The heart of this tale that spans 309 pages all comes down to the relationship that these two women share. The choices that they make—to stick together, to move on, to get jobs, to modernize, etc.—infallibly affect the course of everything. May can oft at times be irritatingly immature and naïve about the real-life situation that surrounds them, however. Pearl, draped in fear and loss, as well as her traditional Chinese thinking, can be similarly as blind and ignorant. This leads to a lack of communication, but also to a silent form a support from both of them. I think that is the absolute biggest theme in Shanghai Girls. Both ladies are supremely independent with very unique personas. They both have a lot of pride, but they keep their silence so as not to hurt the other. While this novel is about two Chinese women finding their way out of war-ridden country to salvation, it’s firstly an examination of what it means to be family, to be sisters. Being there for family can be really difficult, especially when you don’t see eye to eye. Nonetheless, you still make sacrifices and compromises for them because they’re your family. Pearl’s and May’s bond of sisterhood gives Shanghai Girls an extraordinarily awe-inspiring depth of emotional tenacity, that is equal parts frustrating and gratifying.
Shanghai Girls is a superb reading experience that will make you angry, tearful, sorrowful, yet happy, content, and warmhearted. The writing style is passionate and engrossing. It is one of the best novels that I have ever read in regards to family and what it means to be an immigrant, and it’s definitely the best book that I have read this year. I highly recommend Shanghai Girls to anyone who is remotely interested in fantastic storytelling with fearless thought-provoking content. Please note that there is some sensitive content in this book in relation to violence. My rating is indisputably five pearls out of five.
5 blossoms outta 5!