China Dolls: A Novel
by Lisa See
When I learned that Lisa See had a new novel out, I ran out and bought it as soon as I could. With the exception of Peony in Love, which I wasn’t crazy about, I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Lisa See. China Dolls does not disappoint.
The novel opens with seventeen-year old Grace’s arrival in San Francisco in 1938. Raised in a small midwestern town in Iowa, Grace is Chinese by blood, although she’s never laid eyes on another Oriental in her life. Running away from a father who beats her ruthlessly, Grace is determined to make it in San Francisco as a dancer. Her path soon intersects with those of two other Oriental girls: Helen, the only daughter of a well-to-do Chinese family who live in their compound in the heart of Chinatown, and Ruby, a free spirit who cares nothing for convention or rules. All three young women have secrets; all three are running from something and trying to carve out new lives for themselves on the stage. Entertainers the likes of chorus girls are largely seen as immoral and one step up from prostitutes in post-Depression era America, and Grace, Ruby, and Helen must all deal with the social and familial repercussions of their choices. On the brink of WWII, the air is charged with excitement and distrust, and an act of betrayal changes the course of the girls’ lives for good.
It’s easy to go into this novel thinking it’s going to be about the unbreakable bond of friendship that verges on sisterhood between these three women, but it would be a mistake to think it’s that simple. As in real life, the bonds of friendship are tested and scarred by jealousy, competition, backstabbing, spite, shifting loyalties, and shifting fortunes. See does a beautiful job of creating believable, vivid characters in a plot that takes a number of twists and turns. Narrated by turns by Grace, Helen, and Ruby, the reader gets inside each character’s head, and is transported to a different time and place; I was fascinated by this slice of American history involving Chinese American stage that I knew nothing about before reading China Dolls.
I couldn’t put this one down; loved it.
Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
In this sequel to Shanghai Girls, the year is now 1957. Pearl and May’s daughter Joy becomes the protagonist. Reeling from the recent suicide of the man she’s always known as her father and the recent discovery that the two people she’s always known as her parents really aren’t her parents, nineteen-year old Joy steals away in the night, leaving everything and everyone she knows in Los Angeles, to go to China to find her birth father. Full of idealism, Joy is convinced that she can escape the guilt that haunts her by seeking out her Chinese roots and immersing herself in a new life.
Set during the earliest part of Mau’s regime, China’s Great Leap Forward is chronicled – an economic and social campaign launched by China’s communist party aimed at using China’s vast population to transform China into an economic and agricultural powerhouse – which ends in disaster, resulting in catastrophic famine and loss of life. I confess that I knew next to nothing about this period of Chinese history, and this story provided a lot of information.
When Pearl, back in Los Angeles, discovers her adopted daughter’s plan, she is determined to save Joy at any cost. She makes her way through the Bamboo Curtain and back to her old home in Shanghai, resurrecting long-buried ghosts and attempting, finally, to make peace with her past.
I finished this book a couple weeks ago, and probably would have done better to remember more details had I written my review right away, but I went and had a baby! I also wish I had read this book closer to the time I had read Shanghai Girls, as many details were lost to me in the almost three years since I read it.
Dreams of Joy is a very worthwhile read, and could probably stand on its own, but I would recommend reading or re-reading Shanghai Girls first.
Last night I went to my very first author signing at our local Barnes & Noble, featuring Lisa See. She is promoting her latest novel, Dreams of Joy, the sequel to Shanghai Girls. If you’re not familiar with her work, she has also written the critically acclaimed On Gold Mountain, the wildly popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and, to my surprise, a mystery series: Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones.
It was quite a thrill. Lisa See is a bona fide author – a bestselling author! For me, this was like meeting a rockstar.
The room was packed – standing room only. Ms. See was a wonderful speaker, very down to earth and funny. She talked not only about Dreams of Joy, but also Shanghai Girls and how she developed the story and characters. She also talked quite a bit about On Gold Mountain, as it’s the historical account of her own Chinese-American family. And she mentioned that she’s working on a new novel that should be released next year!
Afterwards, she took questions from the audience (I didn’t work up the nerve to ask her a couple of questions I wanted to ask her, but I just might shoot her an email since she said she personally answers every email she receives), and then the long line formed for everyone to have copies of their books signed by her.
I nearly broke the bank buying up several of her books that I haven’t yet read, including On Gold Mountain, Dreams of Joy, and her entire mystery trilogy. I really enjoyed the whole thing, and hope to get to attend more of these!
Lisa See, my friend Caryl, and me