Lisa See completely transcends genre with her newest novel Shanghai Girls.
See’s novel tracks Pearl, the narrator, and Pearl’s sister, May, from the streets of Shanghai at its pinnacle as the Paris of Asia, where they are “beautiful girls,” Chinese calendar models, through their flight from Japanese invaders, to an immigration camp on Angel Island in Northern California. The sisters eventually land in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, with husbands to whom they were essentially sold by an indebted, gambling father. There they begin to build a strong, if non-traditional, family.
On one level, Shanghai Girls is obviously a reduction of the Chinese experience, following Pearl and May from mainland China to the United States. Their story is the story of many immigrant Chinese families, from the cosmopolitan heights of a bustling Shanghai, to the depths of American interment, to the spread of Communism and its shadow on Chinatown in 1950s Los Angeles. But these places and events are folded delicately into See’s narrative to deliver a deeper story, one of identity.
Individual identity is a tricky thing. Are we the product of an ethnicity? A nation? A family? A sign of the Zodiac? A name? Can a collection of personal traits, from appearance to abilities, adequately define a person or direct their path in life? Pearl struggles with these questions, adrift in self-doubt. With each twist in her journey, Pearl finds a new perspective on her place in the world, as if looking through a constantly shifting kaleidoscope.
With its colorful packaging and feminine title, some readers might pass over this novel, pigeonholing it as vapid chick lit. But Shanghai Girls is a rare novel, offering something for a wide range of readers. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Shanghai Girls manages true feminist values without overdosing on estrogen. See calmly tells Pearl’s story in the context of a broader, more complicated world, where women and men alike struggle to establish and maintain their identities.
Mac M., aka blackdogbooks on Librarything, lives in the American Southwest and works in law enforcement.