Bonnie's Reviews > Shanghai Girls

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
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Jul 10, 2009

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bookshelves: historical-fiction, world-lit-asia, 2008-books
Read in May, 2011

Dear Lisa See,

This is a pictorial representation of how I felt while reading your book:

Shanghai - Angel Island section: \(^o^)/
San Francisco, the early years: (-_-;)
Joy grows up: ヽ(o`皿′o)ノ

It started out so well. Sure, Pearl and May were sheltered, spoiled and selfish. But that's the start of a heroic arc, yes? A character has to start low so when she becomes mature and generous, it is clear how far she has come. The attack on Shanghai was terrifying and horrific. I loved how the Chin matriarch had more backbone and intelligence than either of her daughters ever dreamed she possessed. I very, very much liked the Shanghai section of your book. I'm not saying that I liked reading about the horrible things that happened to the Chin family. But the novel had a sense of urgency and drama and potential that it quickly lost once the girls got to America.

Ms. See, I know the tragedy of Chinese immigrants for far too much of the 19th and 20th centuries (blatant, persistent racism that extended into the lifetimes of those still alive today) is near and dear to your heart. But there is a place between dogma and silence where subtlety lies and you have not found it. There are certain scenes in the book that are not part of the organic stories of the characters. They are there because you want to SHOW the reader another aspect of white racism against those of Chinese descent. Example: Pearl gets a job in a department store. This is good, because she has spent far too much of her time in San Fran whining and refusing to move beyond her porch. Her English is perfect and she is apparently a natural born saleswoman. Of course, she hits a glass ceiling because she's Chinese. A paragraph later, she's left her job. Why? It's never explained. Probably because your point is made: Chinese were discriminated against in employment. Now that you've shown that, Pearl never again uses her perfect English (or any of the other languages she's fluent in) or her apparent innate selling skills, even when the family is in need of money. This happens again when Pearl and Sam want to enroll Joy in a white school. The kindergarten teacher is a racist and poor Joy is so mercilessly harassed they give up and move her to the local Chinese school. This could be a normal plotpoint, but it was so brief and random it felt more like another message: Chinese were discriminated against in public schools. I'm not saying that you aren't writing about important messages. I'm saying that shoe-horning in messages whether or not they are natural to the characters and storyline leaves a bitter aftertaste and actually distracts from what you are trying to say.

I am also sad that you managed to waste Sam. He is the perfect set-up for a romantic hero: (1) even Pearl admits he's handsome and he's buff from all that manual labor (2) he has a tragic backstory (3) he loves his daughter and cares for Pearl (4) he is patient, kind, loyal, hard-working and good. But, no, he is male and therefore can never develop into a full character. Can you PLEASE write a male who is not a place holder or a prop? I know you are all about sisterhood and female friendship rah, rah, but you can do that AND have a romance. I WANTED to fall in love with Sam and have Pearl and him have some real connection, but after his tragic backstory confession he doesn't really do much again until the end. If you need some ideas for how to write good romantic interests, try Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune, because I was ready to marry Tao Chi'en myself when I read that book.

Also, what is up with you writing such annoying protagonists? Pearl is Lily all over again. Pearl and Lily are the same selfish, passive-aggressive, cold, bitter, whiny, obstinate woman. Is Pearl actually Lily reincarnated? I would have much rather have had May as the narrator. She might've be flighty and selfish, but at least she did more than mope around, feel like a martyr and complain.

This applies to Joy. I know she was your representation of the entitlement and rebellion of first generation Chinese-Americans. But am I SUPPOSED to want to bitch-slap sense into her? She takes after her mother in the whining department, but instead of being annoyingly passive she is stupidly naive, which makes her brash. (view spoiler)

I cannot believe there is a whole other book on Joy. Why? Why?!?!?. I would declare that I won't read it, but I can't promise I wouldn't be lying. I got through almost all of Philippa Gregory's Tudor series despite raving about how horrible they were (well, The Queen's Fool was pretty good). I like to finish what I start, whether that's wise or not.

And please, for the love of God, please kill the term "the husband-wife thing." I accepted it with Lily, who was a sheltered country girl. Maybe that's the term they really used, I don't know. But Pearl was loudly and proudly cosmopolitan. She had American friends and watched American movies. She had perfect English. She would know more ways to allude to sex. "The husband-wife thing" makes my skin crawl, because it sounds like the speaker is not all mentally there.

I think you are a talented writer, Ms. See. And you have probably already forgotten more than I will ever know about the history of China and Chinese immigrants. So I hope you can expand your focus a little, throw in some romance (or at least a male character that's more than "the husband"/"the father-in-law", etc.) and not show your work so much. I have high hopes for you.

Your humble reader,
Bonnie
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Reading Progress

06/11/2011 "This is one of those books that makes me want to stab things. I can't believe Pearl and Joy - the two most aggravating characters in the book - get a sequel. If they were real, I would slap them. Especially Joy."

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