Lauren's Reviews > Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
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Dec 08, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: physically-own, kindle, historical-fiction
Read in February, 2011

** spoiler alert ** I LOVE that See didn't try (like many authors of historical fictions do) to whitewash the protagonist/narrator's thoughts to match modern-day sensibilities, even though this make Pearl an unreliable narrator. Instead she presents Pearl Long with all of the biases of her time, all of her flaws, and all of her strengths. As such, the reader gets a glorious, accurate, no-holds-barred insight into the life of a female Chinese immigrant in the 1930s. On top of this, the historical tidbits in the novel are invaluable; for instance, I never knew that Chinese people were once prohibited from owning property in America, and the ultra-detailed descriptions of China city's working bring the dead town back to life.

Many people call the sisters "unlikable," but I think this results from a fundamental misunderstanding of the book. Like every human on the planet, the girls can act very selfishly and thoughtlessly. Compared to other books that censor impolite thoughts (whereas See records everything), I can see how the characters seem brash. However, showing their dark sides doesn't make either sister heartless, but convincingly human. Pearl's internal complaints about caring for her sister's disabled husband may make her seem petty, but who revels in wiping a grown man's ass? When I consider each girl's actions in context--and really think how I or someone I know would act in a similar situation--I realize the characters reflect reality, good and bad. More importantly, for each selfish action or thought, the sister's love for each other ultimately shined through. May whined until her sister sacrificed a speaking part in a movie to her, but then only she stands by Pearl after her miscarriage and patiently nurses her back to health.

However, I liked that Pearl's personality reflects a realistic blend of her time's traditional and progressive attitudes--and later--the Chinese and American cultures. She refuses to name her daughter Pan-di ("Hope for a Brother") at her father-in-law's behest, even though traditionally the grandfather always has the honor of naming grandchildren; yet the sexism of her day has still soaked her to a point where she can call her freshly-dead mother-in-law "insignificant [like me]...just a wife and a mother," feel like a complete waste of life for not producing a son, or acquiesce to her father's request for arranged marriage.

However, despite Pearl's constant reminders of the lesser status of women, through their actions, courage and strength, the women in the book never fail to touch the reader's heart. For example, Pearl's mother, whose bound feet are only half-functional, is presented as weak, whiny, indecisive--a mere ornament. Yet, after her husband's disappearance, when the action arises, she fearlessly tries to lead her daughters to safety and later, without hesitation, flings herself amid a pack of enemy soldiers to distract them from her daughters. That scene is one of the best I've read of a mother's love--especially the very end, when the dying, battered woman gathers her remaining strength to pull her daughter to her. Later, small and fragile May pushes her sister's and mother's unresponsive bodies in a wheelbarrow--even as her hands are rubbed to the muscle and the sun bakes her flesh--to the hospital, even though it's miles away.

See also deals very expertly with the Red Scare, taking care not to demonize any side. It's easy to sympathize with the overworked, underfed, underage rickshaw pullers who suffer the indignities of the wealthy; as the imagery of starved babies filling the gutters, one can understand why communism appealed to the lower classes. On the other hand, See accurately presents the regime's brutalities and ultimate failure to fulfill its promises. On the American front, See shows how the Red Scare and the fear resulting thereof tore communities--and in particular, Chinese-American families--apart in the worst ways possible.

I admit that, as another reviewer complained, the book does have a lot of negative things--death, war, rape, failure. However, again, this is because the book stays as true-to-reality as possible--and let's face it, most lives don't end with two lovers happily riding off into the sunset-especially if you're a war refugee or unwelcome immigrant! Despite all of the struggle, the book always counters with a theme of survival, persistence, and hope.

I walked away from 'Shanghai Girls' with a new appreciation for the Chinese immigrant struggle like I'd never known before.
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