Thursday, September 9, 2010
Lisa See/SHANGHAI GIRLS
It's Shanghai in 1937, and Pearl and her sister, May, are at the top of the world. For the cultured daughters of a wealthy Shanghai bourgeois family, Shanghai is an amusement park of fancy restaurants and clubs, chatty artists and philosophers, classy expats, and endless fun. Or at least, it seems to be--as the Japanese threat looms, the facade of Shanghai glamour begins to crumble. Pearl learns that her father has gambled away the family fortune, and that she and her sister are about to be sold into marriage to two brothers who live in California.
I'm a devoted fan of Lisa See's, and have trouble deciding whether to recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan or Peony in Love first to people who've never read her (in fact, I've gushingly reviewed both here). So when I say I was disappointed by Shanghai Girls, I suppose I must also say that my expectations were very high. Much of the story felt familiar to me--in the sense that I have read many stories set in this time and place before, and I felt more echoes to other books than I was expecting to based on how original I found See's other two books--but really what bothered me most of all was that this book was written in the present tense, which I found a constant minor irritation.
Those small qualms aside, I am still glad I read the book. As always, See's historical detail is impeccable, and I came out of reading with new and interesting knowledge about Angel Island, Chinese immigration to the United States, and life in US Chinatowns during the middle years of the 20th century. The latter half of the book contained the kind of freshness I had been hoping for in the first half. I should also mention that at least one of my friends felt the opposite, and this was her favorite of See's books.
Anyone else read it?