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on 21 February 2009
Shanghai Girls (Random House Large Print (Cloth/Paper))
Lisa's See's new novel, Shanghai Girls, provides a rich experience for its readers - taking them from the splendor, highlife, glamour and poverty of 1937 Shanghai to the struggles of Chinese immigrants to survive a virtual internment on Angel Island, off the coast of San Francisco, to the almost impossible challenges of trying to build a life in Los Angeles Chinatown in the context of an America that does not want them and treats them cruelly.

But despite its rich background, Shanghai Girls is ultimately the story of two sisters - Pearl and May - who desperately strive to help each other survive and at the same time replay in their minds and actions old rivalries, jealousies, and hurts. The summary of the book on See's web site puts it well: "They love each other but they also know exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other sister the most." This is most dramatically shown in the novel's climax.

Pearl, speaking in first person, is the narrator, taking us from 1937 to 1957. This time period matches Parts IV and V of See's On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family. The perspectives are different, however. In the memoir See is scrupulously objective in treatment family members, herself, and issues very close to her. Pearl lets us experience some of the same American experiences but from a different perspective and from the inside.
Late in the novel, Pearl reflects: "We're told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men." This is certainly true of Pearl herself.

Growing up in Shanghai, the Paris of Asia, Pearl and her sister May live lives of privilege. Being a Dragon, Pearl is seen by her parents as a fiery, strong daughter who can take care of her self-absorbed Sheep sister. By the time she is 21, Pearl and May enjoy the status of being Beautiful Girls, Pearl rather insensitive to those who serve her and her wealthy family.

But then Pearl's journey into suffering begins. Her father loses his money in gambling debts and the sisters are forced into arranged marriages. The Japanese attack China and Shanghai is attacked by air and the country invaded. In the process Pearl and her mother are brutalized by Japanese soldiers and her mother is killed.

Having lost everything, Pearl and May are forced to flee to America to find their husbands. Surviving a grueling stay at Angel Island (the Ellis Island of the West), Pearl can only hope that her husband Sam and his family will accept her since she is bringing with her a new born daughter named Joy.

Much of Shanghai Girls centers on Pearl's attempt to adjust to life as a member of the Louie family. While May seeks happiness outside the home in her new country, especially in terms of her many associations with the glitzy world of Hollywood, Pearl sees her life as unending drudgery as she is locked into a routine of cleaning and cooking, working in her father-in-law's various business enterprises, and caring for Joy. In addition, she is largely responsible for caring for Vern, May's young and critically ill husband.

Although her father-in-law gradually comes to include Pearl, May, and Joy as true members of his family, Pearl grows closer to her mother-in-law, and discovers that her lower class husband is indeed an Ox in the truest sense, deeply loving and caring for his family, her new Christian and much older Chinese values are tested by the terrors of the McCarthy era of anti-communism accompanied by serious mistreatment of most Chinese people.

At the end of the novel the two sisters directly confront each other at last, venting all the anger and hurt each has repressed previously. Despite being very angry at May for what Pearl feels are very good reasons, May's attacks and self-defense make her realize that she may have been mistaken in many of her core beliefs over the years.

But finally it is Joy who saves Pearl. When she reaches the point where she will give up everything for Joy, Pearl truly becomes her mother's daughter -- and in the process becomes the Dragon she was meant to be.
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on 25 September 2013
a real page turner i couldnt put it down. If you like amy tan type books, this is for you. set in shanghai and america, it's a lovely story.
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on 9 November 2009
At first glancing at the book I was wondering if the book reflected only modern china , but the story was enthralling. (albeit it took me 2/3 chapters to start) There are some very powerful moments in the book that provoke strong emotion and again give you the real sense of china and how it has developed. the story is about young girls in Shanghai who live a lavish lifestyle only then to be ruined by their father and have to take a very long journey for their survival. I love the author Lisa See and recommend all her books for lovers for Asian fiction.
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on 19 August 2010
Pearl and May are sisters - Pearl is the older sister and looks out for May, the more beautiful sister, who she feels is the more loved by their parents. They earn money sitting for portraits which are turned into magazine front covers.

All seems to be going well, until the day when their father admits that he has made bad decisions, has gambled and lost the family wealth. The girls must be married off to American Chinese, for dowries which will repay the family debts. The girls have one night with their husbands, and are handed tickets to sail to America. They put off the inevitable as long as possible, then we follow their journey, and their time at Ellis Island and many interviews by immigration officials, who have to determine whether their marriages are genuine.

The standing of their husbands is not as they were told, and life in America is hard. The sisters find different ways to deal with the challenges they face.

Wonderful writing, but with a slightly odd and disappointing ending.
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on 12 December 2011
An Affinity for Shadows

This was the first novel I read by Lisa See, and she weaves a story so interesting, so compelling that one can only look forward to the next moment to sit down and open her book again. This novel is the story of Pearl and May, two sisters who are high class models in China, and by the ugliness of war and the Communist regime are reduced to being sold as brides. They shirk their fate, choosing instead to attempt an escape, and the bonds of sisterhood and family are challenged in the most amazing and many times, agonizing ways. The reader is transported to the world of Shanghai, Angel Island, and finally Los Angeles alongside the sisters, and feels their happiness and pain as they struggle to make a better life for themselves. This book brought me to a new understanding of what my own parents and what every immigrant in the 1950s went through, although their experience was not nearly as grueling.
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on 27 October 2009
I read 'Peony in Love' and really liked the story and storytelling.
When 'Shanghai Girls' came out, I bought it too, in the hope that this story would be just as fascinating.
But what a disappointment. It was OK in some parts but got worse the further the story got. Lisa See is just droning on and on about things that could have been told in a couple of pages, like the Angel Island part, which went on for too long.
After suffering through more pages about Pearl and May settling down in their husbands' apartment, I just couldn't bear to continue reading the story and threw the book out.
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on 4 June 2009
This story is about two sisters, Pearl and May, who expect to have a life as "beautiful girls" in Shanghai -- their "Paris of Asia." They are shocked to find out that their father has arranged marriages for them, to make good on a tremendous debt. They were led to believe that they would be able to make decisions for themselves, and not live in the past as their mother has done, so -- naturally -- they fight the arrangements.

They do get married, but they do not leave China with their new husbands as planned, which is very near the time when the Japanese invade. As a result of this decision to stay behind, they are put through a series of traumatic events. Eventually, they decide the best thing would be to go to their husbands in America, but this does not end their suffering.

After they leave Angel Island, they are tested even further. Once they stop fighting their fates, their lives finally find some happiness. This happiness is marred by the treatment of Chinese in America because of being mistaken for Japanese, and then being accused of spying for Communist China.

Pearl and May have been keeping a lot of secrets between themselves during their lives, and eventually, Pearl's daughter finds out the truth about her family. She is furious with her mother and Aunt May, and makes a drastic decision that tears apart what is left of the only family they have.

The story is told by Pearl, as if she is speaking directly to the reader face-to-face, and I enjoyed the POV immensely. I was very interested in the characters, and often felt like I was there with them. However, the ending was extremely disappointing, compared with the rest of the book.

First of all, Pearl has a sudden revelation that everything she believed may have been a lie, or a false perspective. I find it hard to believe that her character, a strong woman who is very sure of herself, would suddenly agree that she was mistaken about everything. Also, the end of the story was so abrupt, I thought I had an incomplete copy, but I found out (after inquiring) that was the actual ending. We are left to wonder what became of four main characters -- FOUR!, right after the remaining family members are faced with yet another crisis.

I might have given this book five stars, but that ending absolutely ruined everything good about the story. I would have sung praises about the author, but there is a big difference between leaving an ending "open," and just stopping the story.

Another work of fiction that shows how cultural differences affect characters is The Pearl Diver, which has a proper ending.
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on 10 December 2010
Preferred Lisa See's other books. Two girls who in 1937 have it all in Shanghai, freedom, money, beauty...until their father gambles it all away and they are sold off to husbands in America. Despite their bond he sisters are envious of each other each one believing that the other has been favoured by their parents...this fallacy remains in the background for over 20 years sometimes interferring with their choices.
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on 6 May 2012
I loved this book, i have read both this and the sequel 'dreams of joy' and i was absolutely enthralled by them. The central characters of Pearl and May are so well written that you can't help but empathize with them throughout their ordeals. The book is beautifully depicted both in its descriptions of places and events. It made me cry in some places and smile in others, highly recommended.
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on 15 August 2015
A page turner, which starts with a lot of promise and continues that way until about 3/4 of the way through, however, I agree with other reviewers that at that stage the focus becomes a bit lost, as does the reader's (and possibly author's) interest in the book. It was one of the last books I read and I can't for the life of me remember it's ending which, I think, says it all.
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