Book Talk: *Shanghai Girls,* by Lisa See (TLC Book Tour)

Disclosure: This review is posted as part of a blog tour arranged by TLC Book Tours to promote the publication of the paperback edition of Shanghai Girls (February 2, 2010). However, I had purchased this novel as an e-book to read on my Amazon Kindle prior to joining the tour, and therefore I did not receive a review copy from the publisher. *Purchasing links in this review go through my Amazon Associates account.

Shanghai Girls: A Novel by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls: A Novel
Lisa See
Random House (2009), Hardcover (ISBN 1400067111 / 9781400067114)
Fiction (historical/20th century), 336 pages

Opening Lines: “‘Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks,’ my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him. ‘Can’t you do something about them?’

“Mama stares at Baba, but what can she say? My face is pretty enough—some might even say lovely—but not as luminescent as the pearl I’m named for.

Book description: In 1937 Shanghai—the Paris of Asia—twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Though inseparable best friends, the sisters also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are—Shanghai girls.

Comments: The book description I’ve quoted above actually makes Shanghai Girls sound a bit more balanced than it is, in terms of the development of its primary characters. Pearl and May Chin are sisters, and the ups and downs of their relationship propel the story forward, but the book is narrated in Pearl’s first-person voice. Because of that, I felt that I only got to know the other characters, including May, as Pearl saw them, and there were times I found that a bit frustrating.

But there’s no doubt that the sisters’ stories are joined to one another, and they have quite a story to tell. As young, carefree “beautiful girls” – basically, models for commercial artists – the Chin sisters may bicker with one another and their parents, but their lives are pretty easy; that is, until they’re not anymore. When they’re sold into marriage to two American brothers in partial payment of their father’s gambling debts, they fight going until they’re forced out of Shanghai by war between China and Japan. A harrowing trip across their home country and the Pacific eventually lands them at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, where they are held for months before they’re allowed to join their husbands and new family in Los Angeles. And once they arrive there, the life they find waiting for them isn’t what they expected.

Despite the general issue with character development that I already mentioned, I felt that author Lisa See drew Pearl very well. I could see her grow and become more resilient over time, I sensed the obstacles and blinders she put in her own way, and her voice kept me engaged with her story. (I still would have liked to see several of the characters – particularly May and Pearl’s husband Sam – through eyes other than Pearl’s, but those perspectives would have changed the novel.) See’s ability to convey time and place is impressive; I was particularly drawn into the portion of the story at Angel Island, and was fascinated by the portrait of a long-gone Los Angeles. I felt that the plot itself verged on soap-operatic in spots, to be honest, but See’s excellent writing made it work for me.

This is the first of Lisa See’s novels that I’ve read (although Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has been living in TBR Purgatory for a while), and I’ve heard that some of her fans haven’t liked it quite as much as her earlier books, partly because it’s less “historical.” I’ll be a contrarian here – the 20th-century setting, and partial location of the story in my own city, are among the things that I found most appealing about Shanghai Girls. Despite my quibbles, I enjoyed the novel, and I’ll be recommending this one to friends who seek out thought-provoking fiction, especially if they also like strong female characters and vivid settings in the recent past.

Rating: 3.75/5

*Buy Shanghai Girls: A Novel at

Other stops on this TLC Book Tour:

Monday, January 4th:  Suko’s Notebook
Tuesday, January 5th:  The Literate Housewife Review
Wednesday, January 6th: Stephanie’s Written Word
Thursday, January 7th:  She is Too Fond of Books
Friday, January 8th:  Book Club Classics
Monday, January 11th:  Luxury Reading
Tuesday, January 12th:  Diary of an Eccentric
Wednesday, January 13th:  Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, January 14th:  Caribousmom
Friday, January 15th:  The Book Faery Reviews
Monday, January 18th:  Booking Mama
Tuesday, January 19th:  Savvy Verse & Wit
Wednesday, January 20th:  Dolce Bellezza
Thursday, January 21st:  Book, Line, and Sinker
Friday, January 22nd:  Word Lily
Monday, January 25th:  The Brain Lair
Tuesday, January 26th:  A Lifetime of Books

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  1. I haven't read any of See's work, but have a couple of books here in my own TBR purgatory. I'm really anxious to read this one after the great reviews I've read.

  2. It is my least favorite of her three historical novels, although I still liked it. And seeing the old LA Chinatown through Pearl's eyes was the best part of the book, for me.

  3. Great review, Florinda! I also enjoyed reading about the old LA Chinatown. We visit Chinatown now and then so it was really interesting reading about how it used to be.

    While my favorite Lisa See book remains Snow Flower, I really loved Shanghai Girls too.

    Thanks so much for all the time you put into reading and reviewing SG. We really appreciate it!

  4. Snowflower is BY FAR my favorite of See's historical novels, then this one. I liked Peony in Love the least (it was a little too much into the mystical realm for me). I've wondered about her mysteries…which is the genre she first wrote in. Have you read any of those?

    Great review, Florinda (as usual!)

  5. Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I thought I was the last one to get around to reading one of her novels – apparently not :-). I saw Lisa See on a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books last year, and have been intrigued by this particular novel ever since.

    Jill (Softdrink) – I also liked the Angel Island portion, but the descriptions of life in Chinatown were fascinating and very vivid.

    Lisa – I actually haven't quite finished the book yet, but I was far enough into it that I still felt capable of reviewing it :-). Thanks for inviting me to be part of the tour!

    Wendy – I haven't read any of Lisa See's mysteries either. However, I besides Snow Flower, I also have a novel by her mother, Carolyn See, in TBR Purgatory.

  6. Jennifer – I think the reason that struck me so much was because there were things I could see in some of the other characters that Pearl seemed completely blind to (and this was borne out by her confrontation with May at the end). I did like the book, but I do wonder if I might have liked it better with more perspectives.

  7. I said that exact thing — I think I might have liked it better with more perspectives.

    I did enjoy the picture the book painted of LA's Chinatown, and of Angel Island, though.