I’ve never had that fascination with China that a lot of people have, but Lisa See — first in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, now in this novel — has managed to awaken my interest in that country and made the hidden lives of Chinese women come alive for me in a way no other writer, even Amy Tan, has been able to do.
Shanghai Girls begins in 1935 with the first-person narrator Pearl and her sister May, young girls who consider themselves modern and liberated from traditional Chinese values. They live in the cosmopolitan, urban centre of Shanghai; they earn their own money as “beautiful girls” — i.e. models — posing for advertisements and calendar art; they plan to marry for love rather than allowing their parents to make an old-fashioned arranged marriage. The sisters’ relationship is intensely close even though there’s as much jealously as there is admiration between the two of them.
All their optimistic plans for life shatter when their father loses all his money to a gang leader. The girls are forced into the very kind of arranged marriage they’d dreaded, but that’s only a foretaste of the horrors to come as the Japanese invade China, and Pearl and May are forced to flee for their lives. They end up in the United States, where the book turns to a vivid portrayal of the hardships faced by Chinese immigrants during World War Two and the years that follow.
The historical background is superb and detailed, but the human story is always front and centre, with absolutely believable and absorbing characters working out their lives in difficult times. I loved this book.