If you have read Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you’ve read a book enormously similar to her more recent Shanghai Girls. In Shanghai Girls, the girls are natural sisters instead of close friends; the horrifying foot-binding is swapped for a horrifying gang rape; and the two girls talk out their gross misunderstanding amidst much carnage at the novel’s close. From this, you’d probably think I didn’t like this book and you’d be half right. It’s an absorbing read, but an ugly one. I recommended Perfume in spite of its ugliness, but this is a different sort of ugliness. It’s an accumulation of unpleasant events rather than a thorough investigation of an unpleasant character. Pearl and May (the two sisters) hit a run of serious bad luck and there is one event in their chain of bad luck that pushes it over the edge into ‘too much’ because it feels out of character for the participants. Picture Oliver Twist if it had ended when Bill Sykes caned Nancy: an oppressive downer.
Shanghai Girls chronicles the lives of Pearl and May Chin after their father sells them in marriage to settle his gambling debts. This occurs very quickly (by page 19). I dig quick beginnings. Since the arranged marriage is the initial plot point in the book (and it’s all over the jacket), there’s no suspense to be gained in drawing it out. Generally speaking, this book moves quickly since it has decades to get through while still presenting a reasonable amount of history and contextual information. There are frequent words in Chinese (immediately followed by their translation) that are incorporated smoothly and naturally. Plenty of writers do this to infuse their work with authenticity, but many do so awkwardly and wind up showing the limits of their research instead of allowing the words to spring organically from genuine knowledge.
While I admit to knowing little about Chinese culture in the 1940’s, Lisa See is absolutely convincing. She weaves in information obtained through research, interviews, etc. lightly, without drawing attention to her explanations or being preachy.
The biggest drawback to this book is its unsteadiness. Because Pearl is the narrator, every event is filtered through her perspective and biases; contrary views don’t surface until it’s too late to fix them. As a result, Pearl routinely gets bent out of shape as she counts the offenses against her… then the offending character says: (paraphrased, obvs) “Oh… is that what you’ve been thinking this whole time… because, well, you’re completely wrong and selfish and it’s actually you who is the offensive party.” Because this conversation occurs with her sister several times, it seems like the two are constantly trying to one-up each other in who has been the supportive sister and who has been the leech. By the time it gets to the whole:
“And I was raped by too many men to protect you!”
My sister nods as though she was expecting me to say this. “So now I get to hear about that sacrifice? Again?” (298)
the reader starts to wonder about this wonderful bond of sisterly love. The two of them keep score, trotting out their sacrifices after every new difficulty to see which one truly has the right to grieve over a hard life. Their backbiting is exhausting. While it is interesting to hear May’s side and see the way it shifts Pearl’s (and by extension, the reader’s) view of events, it compounds the tragedy because surely things would have been easier on these two women if they had just talked sooner. I found myself wanting to shake them and say: “Talk!! Where’s all that sisterly bond rubbish I’ve been reading about?”
May and Pearl are frustrating… but, maybe this is how sisters are and perhaps other women will find their relationship honest or identifiable. To this sisterless girl, their relationship was simply trying. Like Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, only when they’ve lost everything can they come back together as sisters. Is that a good ending? I don’t know. Maybe if Lisa See had chosen not to end it on one last fubar moment (sequel?) it would be easier to form an opinion. However, it ends with the two sisters promising to be closer to tackle their next challenge. That might be optimistic if they didn’t have such a rum track record.
There’s always the debate about how something can be appreciated even if it’s not liked. That’s the way I feel about this book. I appreciate the effort it takes to mash so much historical netting around a tightly plotted fiction. I really dislike the sisters, but isn’t it worse to be neutral about a character? I came to think about them as real people over the course of the novel and, if I wasn’t concerned about their end, then their fighting wouldn’t have irked me so much. I’m not sure this counts as an honest drawback in rating the novel; but it sure did make for an unpleasant read at times.
Overall: So how do I rate this? I didn’t much care for the catfights and after the character I liked best was out, there wasn’t much to keep me reading. In other news, I have since read articles about early Chinese immigrants as I did not know much about them. Surely any book that encourages additional reading or research can’t be bad, per se. I’m going to give it a very noncommittal score: a 3.
One WARNING: the rape scene I mentioned is brutal. It’s one of the worst things I’ve read in a fiction book in a long time. It goes on for a couple pages and the detail is excruciating. I am not saying to avoid the book on this account; I just feel it’s upsetting enough to mention it to people who may pick up the book.