At the close of Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, Joy learns that the woman she has known as her aunt May is actually her biological mother, and that her real father is an artist in Shanghai. The parents whom Joy grew up with, Pearl and Sam, are really her aunt and a man that Pearl was arranged to marry. See’s sequel, Dreams of Joy, picks up in the early morning hours after Joy’s discovery. With everything she has known turned on its ear, Joy writes a quick note to Pearl and May and leaves for the People’s Republic of China to find her father, and a new life that feels true. When Pearl finds the note, she returns to the country that nearly claimed her life to find Joy. The year is 1957 and Chairman Mao is about to announce his “Great Leap Forward.”
Leave out that last sentence above and the description might sound a bit like the setup for a “Chick-Lit” beach read or a Lifetime Television movie. But anyone familiar with See’s Shanghai Girls will be prepared for a gritty and bare description of a land in turmoil. In Shanghai Girls, See exposed the bloody Japanese invasion of China and the humiliating experience of immigrating to a country that was not prepared to accept and understand such a foreign culture. This time, See brings her pin-point gaze to Mao’s devastating revolution where every individual human spirit is a target. Famine, starvation, and slavery reduce everyone to mere ghosts.
I’d unconditionally vouch for See’s accuracy if I had a better working knowledge of the time and events, but to date, the only other book I’ve read on the subject is Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp by Xianhui Yang. Yang’s book, while a true account, was marketed as a novel so that it could escape Chinese government officials’ attention. And based on Yang’s account, See is dead on with her description of this bleak period of history.
What appealed to me most about Shanghai Girls is missing in Dreams of Joy. In the former, tragedy befell everyone; no one was safe and happy endings were in short supply. The story felt real, credible. And while there is plenty of tragedy in Dreams of Joy, the ending feels somewhat rushed and contrived with nearly everything working out for our heroines.
Bottom Line: Dreams of Joy is another solid and enjoyable work of historical fiction focusing on a time and culture that receives far too little attention, even if the ending feels designed for a Hollywood movie deal. All those who might shy away from this one based on the cover or the author or a feeling that it is designed only for half of the world need to think again.
Be sure to check out our review of Shanghai Girls
Mac, aka blackdogbooks on Librarything, lives in the American Southwest and works in law enforcement.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.