Alicia's Reviews > Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
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Jan 01, 12

bookshelves: adult, abuse, historical, multicultural, politics, religion, romance
Read from December 30, 2011 to January 01, 2012

** spoiler alert ** I am a big fan of all of Lisa See's works that I've read so far (Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) and now Shanghai Girls. She does not disappoint. Her detailed descriptions and fabulous writing really takes you to China and the places she discusses, including, in this story, May and Pearl's arduous trip and subsequent life in Chinatown, California. There is so much character development, conflict, and emotion that at 309 pages, it doesn't feel long. Yes, at times, there was a woe-is-me drag, but part of the story nonetheless.

The bond between sisters is painful to watch (I'm an outsider, never having had sisters nor am I Chinese to understand the specific connections to culture and sibling relationships). May generally is painted as a narcissist and Pearl is the daughter duty-bound to protect her while sacrificing her life for it. After losing their father to gambling, then their house, they both have arranged marriages (which they are intent on not following through with), and are supposed to move to America with these new husbands. Instead, war breaks out in and around Shanghai leading to the death of their mother (whose strength during her final moments was shocking to her daughters after being meek most of her life), the gang rape of Pearl, and their agonizing trip to Angel Island to follow through with the marriages or risk losing more.

The biggest secret is May's daughter, born on Angel Island becomes Pearl's. Not only has May illegitamately had this girl, but the implications of arriving with a child (as Pearl and her husband Sam's) would be better for the new family. Their life is ho-hum, being poor and bossed around by the father-in-law, Pearl turns the other cheek and continues on monotonously, secretly wishing she had the freedoms that May has- though May's struggle is being married to a mentally-retarded "boy" and expected to produce a son. Continue through the 1940s and 1950s and through Pearl's maturation and Pearl has now become comfortable with who she is.

Now, the last few chapters are a bit cliche but necessary. It was shocking that Sam committed suicide as the FBI was beginning to discover the secrets of paper sons and paper partners (fake children and business relationships to get people into the US-- Sam is a paper son) and the explosion that May and Pearl have is the cliche part where, of course, Joy (May's real daughter but who only knows Pearl as her mother) walks in to find out that May is her mother and her father is actually ZG, an artist who painted the girls when they were younger. May ended up having a relationship with him that was private because Pearl expressed interest in ZG.

I appreciated the relationship between Pearl and Sam as the true story. Knowing how Pearl was raised and how she felt about herself, to living in America, and then losing her husband, who she had come to love through years of hardship, was my connection to the story of the two. And, it all started when Sam finally confessed that he was Old Louie's paper son and was actually a rickshaw puller growing up that led the way to Pearl confessing her rape and inability to mother any children.

"'You're like a bird that's been freed from a cage,' May says, 'but doesn't remember how to fly. You're my sister, but I don't know where you've gone in your mind. You're so far away from me now.'"

"May seems at peace, despite everything that's happened tonight. My sister and I have fought over shoes, over who's had the better life, and over who's smarter and prettier, but this time I don't have a chance. I know who will win. For so long I've wondered about my destiny. It wasn't enough for me to lose my baby son and my husband. Now the tears of the greatest loss of my life roll down my cheeks."
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