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