Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Shanghai Girls tells the story of two beautiful Chinese sisters, Pearl and May Chin, who are leading glamorous lives working as models in Shanghai. When their father gambles away all his money, he attempts to pay his debts by selling the girls to husbands who have come from America to look for Chinese wives. It’s 1937, however, and May and Pearl are modern women; they expect to make their own decisions and be allowed to choose their own husbands. Finding that this freedom has been taken away from them, they try to rebel against their arranged marriages, but are eventually forced to leave China behind and travel to Los Angeles to live with men they barely know. We then follow Pearl and May as they try to adapt to life in America, but find themselves facing a new set of challenges.

The story is set against a backdrop of the historical and political events taking place during the first half of the 20th century including the horrors of Japan’s invasion of China and later the rise of communism. Pearl and May’s story is very sad, with one tragedy followed by another, and only a few moments of happiness, so this is not always an easy book to read. There are also some plot twists and one or two big secrets, though it’s not too hard to guess what these are before they’re revealed. But above all, this is a story about the bond between two sisters.

Pearl, born in the Year of the Dragon, is very protective of her younger Sheep sister, May, who Pearl believes is their parents’ favourite. Throughout the story it’s obvious that May and Pearl love each other but there’s also a lot of jealousy and resentment – something more serious than normal sibling rivalry – that threatens to damage their relationship. I found I didn’t actually like either of them, though this didn’t stop me from enjoying the book (in fact the only character I really did like was Sam, Pearl’s husband). As the first-person narrator of the novel, Pearl was the sister I naturally tended to have more sympathy for. May seemed very selfish and shallow to me, but as I learned more about her I started to understand what caused her to behave the way she did and I saw that the relationship between the two sisters was more complex than I’d thought. Both characters had good points and bad points and I found both of them frustrating at times!

The only problem I had with this book was that the ending was not very satisfactory. It was obviously intended to be left on a cliffhanger so that you would have to read the sequel to find out what happens next. The sequel, Dreams of Joy, is out now and I’m hoping to start reading it soon, but I was still disappointed that this book didn’t have a proper ending.

This is the second of Lisa See’s historical fiction novels I’ve read. The first was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a story set in 19th century China, but I liked this one a lot more than Snow Flower. Have you read any of Lisa See’s books? Which ones have you enjoyed the most?

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15 thoughts on “Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

  1. Charlie says:

    I’m still to read this (planning to within a few months as I’ve had it for a while) but I’ve read Peony In Love and On Gold Mountain, the latter is non-fiction. I didn’t much like PIL, found it silly and the character was cruel, but OGM was fantastic and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in social and family history.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did, Charlie. I don’t read much non-fiction, but On Gold Mountain sounds great. Thanks for the recommendation. Sorry to hear you didn’t like Peony in Love, though.

  2. Deb Atwood says:

    Hi Helen,

    I started Peony in Love but put it down. Initially, I loved the setting and lyrical language, but I didn’t feel the devolution into anorexia. It just didn’t feel grounded enough for me, and I was turned off by the portrayal as it felt more like a plot device the author needed rather than a natural consequence of character. I really wanted to like it since I am focused on ghost novels.

    • Helen says:

      I’ll probably try reading Peony in Love eventually, but from what you’ve said I’m not sure I’ll like it. Maybe I’ll leave it until after I’ve read her other books.

  3. Buried In Print says:

    I’ve read Snow Flower and Peony in Love, but haven’t picked this one up yet. There were aspects of each of them that I really loved (the dynamics of the friendship in the first, and, in the second, I found what she explored in one of the relationships very interesting…and a little different), but there were other aspects with which I didn’t feel a strong connection; I would try another, but am not exactly in a panic to do so either. I’m curious about the more modern setting in this one, and I’m glad to know about the cliff-hanger so that I can be sure to have the next close at hand in case I’m just as frustrated!

    • Helen says:

      I loved the setting in this book – usually I prefer historical fiction set in the 19th century or earlier, but in this case I really enjoyed the more modern time period. And yes, if you read this one it would be a good idea to have a copy of Dreams of Joy at hand!

  4. Jo says:

    Not one I have heard of, but I think I might enjoy it. I do wonder sometimes why the end books as such, especially when it will be a long time before the next one is out. Guaranteed sales I suppose!

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad it’s taken me so long to get round to reading this book that the sequel is already out – I would have found it really annoying if I’d had a long wait for the sequel!

  5. Anbolyn says:

    I agree with you about the ending! And I read it when it first came out and was furious that I would have to wait for a conclusion. But you know what? I still haven’t read Dreams of Joy! I think the long wait put me off caring what happened to the characters.
    I’ve also read Peony in Love and thought it was mesmerizing, yet a bit frustrating.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, sometimes if you have to wait too long it’s easy to lose interest or forget about it. I’ve managed to get Dreams of Joy from the library so hopefully will be starting it soon.

  6. Anna (Diary of an Eccentric) says:

    I had no idea when I read this book that there was going to be a sequel, and it’s been awhile since I read it, but I remember not having too much of a problem with the ending. I remember thinking that Pearl says she’s going to go off and do something, and I was confident she would. I can’t wait to have time to read Dreams of Joy, though! Will link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    • Helen says:

      I had confidence in Pearl too, but I’m one of those readers who prefers everything to be tied up at the end of a book! I’m looking forward to starting Dreams of Joy.

  7. EveryBookandCranny says:

    I have owned this book for two years but have yet to read it. I love Lisa See though! I’ve read Snow Flower, Peony in Love, and On Gold Mountain. I loved both of the novels and appreciated the memoir. It too is an incredible story.

    • Helen says:

      Peony in Love seems to be a book that people either love or hate – I’m looking forward to reading it myself and hopefully I’ll enjoy it as much as you did! And I’ve seen a few reviews of On Gold Mountain and it does sound a fascinating story.

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