Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Group Night/Book Review -- Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

We honored our deceased book club member, Peggy, in fine form tonight. We remembered her quirks, her defiant opinions, her love of music and books, her spirit – and topped it off with some wonderful food! She would have been proud! We missed her!

I’ve mentioned that we chose Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls because she was one of Peggy’s favorite authors – she adored Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love. I was never fond of either of these works, so I was hoping for “the third time is a charm” cliché to take affect with this book, it was not to be.

Pearl and her sister, May, are “beautiful girls” of Shanghai, living a privileged lifestyle and taking advantage of the cultural diversity. Things soon change has their father gambles away the family fortune, only to be left with his daughters as collateral. In order to satisfy his debts, the girls are sold to husbands in America. In an effort to avoid this arrangement, they delay and avoid their current circumstance, only to get caught in the Japanese invasion. Their only hope for survival now is to make the exodus to American in hopes of finding their “husbands.” Once there, life as “beautiful girls” is lost, and dreams are shattered.

Lisa See tapped into a fabulous cultural story lost to most Americans – the vast number of Chinese who came to this country during both the Japanese invasion and after the Communist revolution. I was unaware of the history of “paper-sons” or of Angel Island. What was disappointing was the writing and story didn’t match the intrigue of history. Much like the story of Chinatown in Los Angeles, the characters often seemed like studio fronts—detailed on the outside, but nothing else inside. Pearl and May have such a dramatic and complex history, but the dialogue between the two is very one dimensional.

Additionally, this sweeping family narrative was hastily butchered in the last ¼ of the book – as if the author decided, “oh, I need to try to finish this in 300 pages, how can I wrap up all my lose ends.” It was nearly a unanimous decision tonight at book group that the ending was AWFUL. Bad. Really Bad. Cliché bad. Freshman English 101 bad. And what was a tolerable book up until that point, completely crashed and burned upon closure.

Which almost seemed appropriate – Peggy would have loved to dissect the ending and would have been voicing her opinion of it (one way or the other) until the final word. And most likely, would have had all of us persuaded into sharing her view of the book in the end.

Book source: Library copy

An interview with author Lisa See about Shanghai Girls

Next month: Our group voted on Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks for our July book club choice. It is one of my Women Unbound reading challenge books – so I’m happy!

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women


Liz said...

i'm surprised more of you didn't like it. i liked it until the awful ending. but i adored snow flower and the secret fan so maybe i am like Peggy.

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

Youch! I've only read Snow Flower by her and loved it; maybe I should leave it at that! By the way, I'm reading another Geraldine Brooks book right now, People of the Book, and it's amazing. I'm looking forward to next month's report on Nine Parts.

wordandcraft said...

I am so sorry I missed book group last night, but I'm glad to see that I am not the only one perturbed by the lazy ending.

I find Lisa See's writing good enough to keep turning pages, but not good enough to seek out more of it. I think you hit the nail on the head that the history is fascinating (which keeps me turning pages), but the storytelling is not (which leaves me feeling flat). For a summer read, not so bad, but it definitely could have been better.

Kathy (mommysreading) said...

I just finished listening to this book. I loved it. Before I started I heard/read that Ms. See was planning a sequel. So while I agree that the ending was abrupt, I wasn't that upset about it. I hope that the next one is also available in audio. It was a wonderful "listen"

Amused said...

I really like Snowflower and the Secret Fan so I have thought about picking this one up. Now maybe I won't...

Julie said...

This is the second not-very-favorable review I've read on this particular book, which is rather disappointing, as I think the subject matter is well worth reading about. Thanks for the honest review!

Julie @ Knitting and Sundries