Summary: "In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, full of great wealth and glamour, home to millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives, thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business. Though both wave off authority and traditions, they couldn’t be more different. Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and living the carefree life ... until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth, and that in order 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, one that will take them through the villages of south China, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the foreign shores of America. In Los Angeles, they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with their stranger husbands, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life, even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.
At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends, who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection. But like sisters everywhere, they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other but they also know exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other sister the most. Along the way there are terrible sacrifices, impossible choices and one devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel by Lisa See hold fast to who they are – Shanghai girls."Opening line: "'Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks,' my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him."
My take: Yes, Shanghai Girls is both a sweeping family story and an immigrant's tale ... but these descriptions alone don't do it justice. The characters are complex and believable; the plot compelling with just the right amount of surprise (neither predictable nor preposterous). As the above summary suggests, the story opens in 1937 Shanghai, where narrator Pearl and her less clever, more charming younger sister May are livin' la vida loca, garnering just the right amount of fame and fortune by modeling for the "beautiful girls" calendars that are ubiquitous to Shanghai advertising.
No sooner, however, have we gotten a taste of the girls' world than it starts to crumble, and ultimately shatters. Initially, Pearl and May defy their father's order to settle his debts by marrying the sons of a wealthy businessman, but then the full story emerges: Baba's creditor is a notoriously brutal gangster, and until he is paid, no one in the family is safe. The sisters have no other choice but to go through with the wedding, spending but a single night with their new husbands before the brothers depart for L.A. To their grave embarrassment, their new father-in-law publicly inspects their bedding in the morning, revealing that while Pearl and Sam have consummated their marriage, May and the childlike Vern have not.
As Sam, Vern, and their parents depart, Pearl and May promise to sail for America in 2 weeks to join them, but have no real plans to do so. That is, until the Japanese army invades Shanghai. Unable to find Baba, the girls and their mother try to trade in their tickets and flee to Hong Kong, but by now, they are but three among countless refugees. They end up hiring a wheelbarrow puller to carry their foot-bound mother as far as he can, stopping at the odd farmhouse along the way for food and rest, until ultimately, the soldiers catch up with them. Mama's attempt to protect her daughters, and later, Pearl's effort to save both Mama and May, have grave, life-altering consequences for all three of them.
All in all, an outstanding story, with a not-too-tidy ending (a plus, in my book). Highly recommended.