Steven Langdon's Reviews > Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
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Dec 15, 11

Read in December, 2011

My wife and I have ties to China that make any novel based in its history and people of great interest -- so it was no surprise that "Shanghai Girls" caught and kept me throughout its dramatic plot and compelling character study. The novel draws a vivid picture of Shanghai in the 1930's, the city's bizarre combination of foreign enclave and urban poor; then it captures the shocking rupture of the Japanese invasion -- and the subsequent refugee flight to Hong Kong and then California. The hard immigrant life of early Chinese settlers in the US is also portrayed with subtle understanding. But perhaps the most surprising part of this novel is the seriously critical treatment of the FBI's unjust anti-communist campaign against Chinese immigrants in the period after Mao's triumph inside China. This is a segment of American history that has not been explored carefully and clearly deserves to be.

This historical pageant makes "Shanghai Girls" a novel with many virtues. But I found the relationship between the two sisters, and in turn between them and other characters, to be curiously unconvincing. With ties shaped by such dramatic developments, I expected relationships of deep complexity and immense intimacy. Yet one sister far too easily (for me) falls into what seems one set of cliches (ties mostly with Hollywood,) while the other falls into another familiar pattern (of close links with her Chinese extended family.) The daughter they share (Joy) could complicate complexities even more, but she too seems to move in a far too formulaic direction (ties with other young Chinese inspired by Mao.)

What could be a deep and emotionally charged novel never quite, for me, realizes its potential. It portrays a time and place skillfully -- but its characters somehow live on the surface rather than in the depths of this rich setting.
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