Shanghai Girls: A Novel
Author: Lisa See
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Random House, 2009
Paperback Edition: 309 pages plus Reading Group Questions
Source: Personal copy
Leaving home and going to a new place is never easy. Leaving a home country and going to a new land delivers grave difficulties. When people flee due to poverty and political upheaval, the challenges seem insurmountable. This story reminds us just what refugees and immigrants face.
This book presents a constant stream of events told in an almost unbelievable and rather flat narrative, much that happens very unpleasant. For this reader, finally, nearly halfway through the book, the character of Sam pulled me into the experience this book offers. He was good, kind, and strong in the face of adversity. I began to care about the happenings overwhelming the narrator Pearl, her sister May, her family and the people that became her family, because I first cared about Sam.
Central to the story is the relationship between the two sisters, made more intense by their situation and the experiences they encounter. Their choices and rivalries are the narrative energy of the story. Yet, the other characters serve to illustrate the life they find. But more than that, Old Man Louie, Yen-Yen, Sam and Z.G, held my interest as the characters struggled against so many events they had little control over.
From Shanghai to Los Angeles in the 1937-1957 time frame the sisters, Pearl and May both drive toward and flee from their life experiences as they search for a place in the world, coping with horror and opportunity. But, where would they be without each other? The sisters are not clones, their differences create this story which can seem crammed with the history of the time for many Chinese-Americans.
Still, the story lingers when the book is finished, offering food for thought as in our present we see evening news reports from countries all over the world filled with refugees fleeing war and inhuman conditions. Often they risk everything for a new life, willing to take chances most of us would not dream of taking and cannot fully understand. Lisa See helps us to look beyond our own narrow visions, and begin to understand a wider world.