Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (audio)

Book Description:
May and Pearl, two sisters living in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, are beautiful, sophisticated, and well-educated, but their family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Hoping to improve their social standing, May and Pearl's parents arrange for their daughters to marry "Gold Mountain men" who have come from Los Angeles to find brides.

But when the sisters leave China and arrive at Angel's Island (the Ellis Island of the West)--where they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months--they feel the harsh reality of leaving home. And when May discovers she's pregnant the situation becomes even more desperate. The sisters make a pact that no one can ever know.
 A novel about two sisters, two cultures, and the struggle to find a new life in America while bound to the old, Shanghai Girls is a fresh, fascinating adventure from beloved and bestselling author Lisa See.
I wasn't bowled over by this novel, but I did like it.  It's my first novel by Lisa See, and it wasn't until only after I finished Shanghai Girls that I heard it had mixed reviews and her previous novels were better.   Bearing that in mind, I felt that much of this book was flat, it didn't help that Janet Song's narration sounded that way as well.   Not much emotion at all.  Many of the characters were superficially developed, in my opinion.  Enough to know why they did certain things, but nothing more than skin deep.  The novel begins in Shanghai, China and follows the course of two sisters who flee China at the onset of WWII and immigrate to Los Angeles, making a life for themselves there with their arranged marriages.  It spans the period from the late 1930's to the late 1950's.  The book wasn't bad, but I had trouble with the two heroines, neither one of which I liked very much.  One came across as selfish and spoiled and the other just seemed stuck and didn't have the gumption to get herself "unstuck."  I was frustrated with her because of it.  I kept wanting to slap her and tell her to be smart and use her head!  Instead she felt sorry for herself and took what was given to her.  She just went along with everything.  Maybe that's just how things were for women back then, especially Chinese women.  In any case, I found much of the book plodding and frustrating - what else is going to happen to this family and how much more can they take?  It was depressing in many ways.

The story is about two sisters, May and Pearl.  May is the "pretty" one and Pearl is attractive but always feels she is overshadowed by her younger sister.  She always feels second best in her parent's eyes.  May gets to do whatever she wants whereas Pearl is the smart one, the one who went to college, the responsible one, the dutiful daughter.  Although Pearl feels resentful towards May, she is still devoted to her little sister and throughout the book you see how Pearl takes care of May, but May also looks out for Pearl, though since the story is all from Pearl's POV, we don't catch on to this until the final showdown between the two sisters at the end of book.

May and Pearl are "beautiful girls" in 1937 Shanghai.  They are models who pose for paintings that are then reproduced for advertisements and calenders throughout China before WWII and the coming of Communism and Mao.  Shanghai is a glamorous international city.  May and Pearl are living the high life until their world comes to a screetching halt when they find out their father has arranged marriages for them with "Gold Mountain Men" and they are to go and live in Los Angeles with them.  Both girls reject the idea, but it turns out their father has lost all his money from gambling debts and this is the bargain he has made - otherwise he will be killed.  Naturally, the girls are devastated and don't understand the full extent of the consequences.  They go through with the marriages, and Pearl and her new husband, Sam, consummate theirs on their wedding night, though May does not because her husband, Vern (Sam's younger brother) is young and "not right."  On the surface, obeying their parents, May and Pearl have no intention of going to California with their new husbands, who have gone on ahead to Hong Kong to await their brides before the final voyage to California.  May and Pearl ditch their husbands at the same time the Japanese attack Shanghai and all hell breaks loose!

From here the plotline changes to one of desperation.  We see how devastating the fall of Shanghai is, and Pearl and May must escape with their mother.  It is assumed their father has perished, never to return.  The three women make it out of Shanghai only to be trapped in a little shack in the countryside, where their mother and Pearl sacrifice themselves to Japanese soldiers in order to protect May who is hiding in the next room.  This was the first instance when Pearl aggravated the hell out of me.  Her mother was trying to save them both from being raped, but Pearl felt she must join her mother!  Come on!  Their mother dies and Pearl nearly perishes as well, but May gets Pearl to safety and eventually they board a ship to California.  With nowhere else to go, no money and the Japanese at hand, this is their only recourse - they must find their husbands in Los Angeles.  But, still they think they can eventually get away from their husband, they just need them to be able to get into the United States.

They arrive in San Francisco and wait on Angel's Island for months and months.  Angel's Island is the stopping point for all immigrants to go through.  It's not easy to just be accepted into the United States.  They must pass all sorts of questions and examinations and during this time, May informs Pearl she is pregnant from someone she knew in Shanghai.  I knew instantly who it was, but Pearl is clueless and the two sisters make a pact that Pearl will pretend she is pregnant and pass the new baby off as hers and Sam's, conceived on the one night they slept together on their wedding night.  The baby is born a girl.  They name her Joy and eventually they get off Angel's Island, live with their husbands in LA and life is not what it was promised to be like.  They all live together in this tiny apartment in Chinatown with Sam and Vern's horrible father and Pearl becomes a drudge of a Chinese housewife learning how to keep house from her drudge mother-in-law.  Learning to cook and clean and work in the various family businesses, Pearl resents the fact that May gets to be off and about, eventually working in Hollywood as an extra.  May's life seems glamorous and interesting, yet Pearl's is nothing but work.  It's as if May is not even married, for Vern never quite grows up, he is somehow retarded.  May seems free as a bird to Pearl and the resentment grows. 

The rest of the book tracks their life in Los Angeles, the racism they face as Chinese in the United States and their goal to try and live the American Dream. Eventually Pearl and Sam grow to love one another, but there is always the risk of discovery that Sam is a "Paper Son" immigrant - which is illegal.  If he is found out, they can be deported, this always hangs over their heads.  With the end of the war and the red scare of Communism and China rampant in the United States in the 1950's, Pearl and Sam must face many obstacles, some that become too great to withstand.  During this period, May and Pearl remain close, sisters until the end, but their relationship is now strained.   Joy is the focal point to them all as she grows up and the climax of the book involves Joy and the secrets that have surrounded her since her birth. 

I'm glossing over tons of events, and I'm trying to avoid spoilers, but the long and short of it is, this is a book that focuses primarily on the struggle of living in the US during this time as a Chinese immigrant and the racism they had to face every day that prevented them from achieving their goals.  It's amazing that anyone who was Chinese was able to get ahead back then!  Yet, many did, many persevered and survived.  Yet with Pearl's story, we see how she was strong, but could not deal with a lot that life threw her way.  She tried her best, but much of her was always still in Shanghai and the Chinese way.  I'm not saying she should have disregarded her memories and customs but it held her back from getting ahead and on with her life.
For much of the book, I didn't like May.  But by the very end, I realized I'd been wrong, as Pearl had been for so long too.  May was the realist in the family once they are in the US.  Embracing her new culture, getting ahead, getting work, making the most of her life.  I had a hard time with Pearl because whereas she was considerd the smart one, she was often stupid in the US, it's as if she was a fish out of water and was in shock.   May made something for herself, but Pearl and Sam ignored the writing on the wall when things were getting dicey with the US government, asking all sort of questions.  They kept to their Chinese ways, refusing to open bank accounts, Sam didn't learn English and Pearl was almost afraid to venture out of Chinatown at first.  So many mistakes were made by them that kept coming back to haunt them.  These small mistakes and errors utimately lead to a dramatic ending in which Pearl must examine her life and May helps open her eyes. 

Overall, the book wasn't bad, but I couldn't wait to finish it and get it over with.  The ending is so up in the air with a cliffhanger, I said to myself, "This is it?  This is how it ends?!" I was terribly disappointed with it.  I guess we're supposed to assume Pearl finally pulls herself together and gets some self-confidence and May stays home in LA and takes care of Vern?   I found the settings and theme of racism and discrimination of the Chinese interesting and enlightening and enjoyed that aspect of the book, but the story itself between these two sisters was a bit cliché - the pretty one, the not so pretty one, the big lie May reveals at the end - well, I saw it coming way, way back so it was no great revelation to me.    If this is a period of history you're interested in, I recommend it, from an historical fiction aspect, it's good. The research is well done, but I didn't get an overall feeling of being there as I have with other books.  I preferred the parts that were still in China and will definitely read See's previous books that take place there.

 I feel like this could have been better, but can't quite put my finger on why, but my gut tells me it needed more depth in the two sisters and not such a one sided perspective from Pearl. 



Carrie at In the Hammock Blog said...

Sounds like this one was an intense and difficult read!!

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

Carrie - I can't say it was intense, as I said the narration was kind of flat and emotionless. I'm sure if I had read it in print instead of audio, it would have had more impact. Not difficult, but I can't say I really cared all that much about the story. It was easy to put it aside, not a "can't put down" kind of book.

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