Thursday, November 14, 2013

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

This book, like many others in my life, was recommended to me by my mother. It's a historical fiction novel that doesn't feel like a historical fiction novel in the least. The story follows the lives of two sisters, and the narrator is the elder of the duo, Pearl Chin.

SHANGHAI GIRLS begins in the beautifully captured setting of pre-WWII Shanghai, referred to fondly as the 'Paris of Asia.' The two main characters are introduced as vain, petty creatures who consider themselves to be a representation of the 'modern' Chinese woman. However, their languid, lazy, indulgent lives are disrupted when they discover that they're being pulled into arranged marriages with a couple of Chinese-American sons. And then World War II really hits Shanghai, the Japanese invade, and everything goes to hell from there.

See weaves a marvelously detailed life story with her words, but although I truly enjoyed the book, I found something a bit... Lacking. Pearl, the narrator, recites everything, even her own emotions, in a detached, documentary-style voice. Although I understand why this might contribute to making a point, it made for some flat parts in the book that seemed to ramble on and on in a monotone, and were therefore hard to push through.

The girls go through a lot of shit, and you can really see their characters evolve and develop through the novel, which is excellent, if it weren't for the fact that their lives are constantly being ruined/in a state of ruin. When I read the first few pages, I was certain that I was going to hate May, but she grew on me quite a bit. All of the characters, actually, had true-to-life personalities and were distinctly relatable, although their melodrama seemed slightly exaggerated at times. {I mean, Sam?? Sam?? You were my favourite character, why the fuck did that happen oh god.}

On the other side of the characterization scale, however, Joy's a stupid little bitch. DREAMS OF JOY is the sequel to this book, but I literally hated Joy so much that I don't think I'll be able to force myself to pick up a book named after her.

Stupid characters aside, the thing that blew me away the most about this was probably the fact that I learned so much from it. See opened my eyes–no, actually, she wrenched them open with pliers–to a dark part of America's rich ethnic history that I had always sort of known was there, but had never really wanted to think about. The blatant racism showed against all of the Chinese people in this book, throughout many occasions and spanning over several decades, was disgusting. But I feel like the little things were worse. Of course, the persecution was terrible, but small things like a Chinese person being unable to secure a job in Chinatown, of all places, really hit you.

This book is emotionally striking, sets a vivid setting, and is truly a solid lesson on life and its ups and downs. Mostly its downs, though.

On a final note, there are some extremely sensitive situations mentioned in this book, so while I would recommend it to anyone interested in culture, life, or really, reading in general, I would strongly caution against it for those who are triggered by rape, violence, suicide, and a few others that I will list after looking through the book again. If you're not particularly bothered by these kinds of situations, then by all means, go for it!