Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See (New York: Random House, 2011)
"In her beloved New York Times bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and, most recently, Shanghai Girls, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the potent bonds of mother love, romantic love, and love of country. Now, in her most powerful novel yet, she returns to these timeless themes, continuing the story of sisters Pearl and May from Shanghai Girls, and Pearl's strong-willed nineteen-year-old daughter, Joy.
"Reeling from newly-uncovered family secrets and anger at her mother and aunt for keeping them from her, Joy runs away to Shanghai in early 1957 to find her birth father -- the artist Z.G. Li, with whom both May and Pearl were once in love. Dazzled by him, and blinded by idealism and defiance, Joy throws herself into the New Society of Red China, heedless of the dangers in the Communist regime.
"Devastated by Joy's flight and terrified for her safety, Pearl is determined to save her daughter, no matter the personal cost. From the crowded city to remote villages, Pearl confronts old demons and almost insurmountable challenges as she follows Joy, hoping for reconciliation. Yet even as Joy's and Pearl's separate journeys converge, one of the most tragic episodes in China's history threatens their very lives.
"Acclaimed for her richly drawn characters and vivid storytelling, Lisa See once again renders a family challenged by tragedy and time, yet ultimately united by the resilience of love."
"The wail of a police siren in the distance tears through my body."
Now this was exactly what I wanted -- a novel with some substance to it, but with enough action that I didn't keep plodding through chapter after chapter, waiting for something to finally happen. While technically a sequel to Shanghai Girls, it works just as well as a stand-alone novel -- compelling characters who don't require you to have read the earlier book to get and care about, fascinating setting, interesting plot, and so on.
The jacket summary pretty much captures how the book starts: Joy, having overheard a vicious argument between Pearl and May, has just learned that the woman she's known all her life as Auntie May is, in fact, her birth mother; that Pearl, the mother who raised her, is really her aunt; and Sam, the late father whose recent suicide she blames herself for, was no blood relation to her at all. With typical 19-year-old recklessness, she raids Pearl's not-so-secret cash kitty and leaves home, determined to find her birth father and answer Chairman Mao's call for overseas Chinese to return to the motherland and help build a Communist utopia. If college boyfriend Joe refuses to join her, well, she'll just go on her own.
As any student of history can imagine, this doesn't ultimately go so well. Joy does reach China, and fairly quickly locates her birth father, artist Z.G. Li, in Shanghai. Eager to get to know him, she convinces him to take her along on a trip to the countryside, helping him teach the peasants to create new, realistic, Party-approved art. (She only learns much later that this is a punishment rather than an honor for Z.G., and that he chose it only as an alternative to forced factory labor.) Initially, Joy is all too happy to drink the red Kool-Aid; food is simple but plentiful, and the camaraderie is a balm to someone still smarting from the implosion of her family of origin. Her infatuation with Tao, an uneducated but artistically-promising young man in the village, doesn't hurt, either -- though she remains grounded enough to resist his initial proposals of marriage, insisting that they scarcely know one another.
Meanwhile, the newly-widowed Pearl embarks on her own trip back to China, determined to find Joy and bring her home. She finds work as a scrap paper collector, and is able to secure a room in her family's old, much-the-worse-for-wear Shanghai home, where she waits, patiently, for Z.G. and Joy to return. Eventually, they do, but it's not quite the reunion Pearl had hoped for; Joy remains committed to the Great Leap Forward and shows no inclination to forgive her mother/aunt or return to the U.S., and Z.G. is torn between knowing Red China isn't quite the idyll Joy believes and wanting more time to get to know his newly-discovered daughter. After some tense moments, Joy returns to the countryside and accepts Tao's proposal, while Pearl remains in Shanghai to be as close to her daughter as possible.
By the time the reality of marriage sets in, the commune members have begun to feel the first pangs of the Great Chinese Famine ... and Joy is pregnant. Slowly, but surely, she and Pearl begin to realize both how much more difficult it's become for her to leave, and how important it is for her to do so.
I won't spoil much beyond that, but this really combines the best of both an action/ adventure story and a family drama. Definitely worth recommending or even rereading.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.