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Tuesday, January 13, 2015

SHANGHAI GIRLS--LISA SEE TAKES US TO EXCITING SHANGHAI


If you've read Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you're probably already looking for another book by See.  If you haven't read Snow Flower..., read Shanghai Girls and you will be hooked. 

As with Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See allows her readers a glimpse into a culture removed not only in time but also in place.  She allows us to travel with her to pre-World War II Shanghai when the city was filled with foreigners and, according to See, foreigners who had no idea of and no interest in the lives of the Chinese inhabitants.  They lived in their own international quarter, richly and privileged with no concern for anything but their own extravagances.  In fact, according to See, even the Chinese who associated with the foreigners had no concern for their fellow countrymen and women who served and worked for them; rather they looked down upon them as peasants destined to live their subservient lives. 

In some ways, therefore, Shanghai Girls is a story of awakening.

But there is much more here.  The story opens in 1937, just before Japan attacked Nanking but not before the tensions began to mount.  Revolution within China is still years away, but the seeds are already sown. Our heroines, sisters Pearl and May, are modern girls, Shanghai girls, who mix with the westerners and work as the beautiful girls who model  for the calendars.  They are celebrities. 

Their story is told through Pearl, the older sister who always saw herself as the less favored of the two.  People were charmed by May who was prettier and more outgoing.  Yet, no sisters could be closer, and the novel traces their lives and travails as they rebel as much as they can against their, in their eyes, old fashioned parents, get caught in Japan's horrific attacks on China and Chinese citizens, and sift through their own lives to try to find some peace and direction.

In some ways, therefore, Shanghai Girls is the story of war and its aftermath.

In some ways, therefore, Shanghai Girls is a story about family and devotion.

In some ways, therefore, Shanghai Girls is a story of finding the truth. 

The beauty of the book is also in the telling.  Lisa See is truly a gifted author.  Her style is spare as she writes Pearl's words, but Pearl is also a college graduate which gives See a bit more latitude.  I have already mentioned Nanking.  While we've read of the horrors as Japan prepared for conquest of China, Pearl's perspective is from an entirely different place.  She lives it in China.  It is a time for the Chinese to make some very difficult choices about their futures. 

“Friends we've known in the cafes—writers, artists, and intellectuals—make choices that will determine the rest of their lives: to go to Chungking, where Chiang Kai-shek has established his wartime capital, or to Yunnan to join the Communists.  The wealthiest families—foreign and Chinese—leave by international steamers, which chug defiantly past the Japanese warships anchored off the Bund.”

As I read, I can feel the tension of the times and the fears people faced.  The idea of making that decision of where to run, particularly because I know China's fate, is a story too universal to read without sympathy if not empathy.

See's descriptive powers are wonderful as you'll see as Pearl describes something as simple as a dress.

“I choose a cheongsam of peach-colored silk with red piping.  The dress is tailored so close to my body that the dressmaker cut the side slit daringly high to allow me to walk.  Frogs fashioned from the same red piping fasten the dress at my neck, across my breasts, under my armpit, and down my right side.

Lisa See brings her reader right into the setting.  No matter the time or location—for the book moves from one generation to the next—you will see it in your mind's eye.

You will get to know the sisters as fleshed-out people with all their strengths and weaknesses, and you will identify with some of their pains and questions. 

Shanghai Girls is a coming of age book in a time of turmoil and violence.  It is set in a time when respected customs and ways are challenged and replaced and where people are forced to make difficult choices and strange alliances in a violently changing world.  On the other hand, it is a book about love, devotion, and family.

Shanghai Girls is a fine book in every way.  I believe you will be drawn in to the story just as I was, and because there are twists and turns and revelations as we follow the lives of Pearl and May, you will finish the book, sigh, and wonder what happens next to these sisters.  Read and enjoy.
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