China Dolls by Lisa See

China Dolls Lisa See is a Chinese-American author whose books deal with various aspects of Chinese history and culture. I had mixed feelings about the first one I read, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I loved Shanghai Girls and its sequel Dreams of Joy, so I was looking forward to reading her new novel, China Dolls.

Beginning in 1938, China Dolls is a fictional account of three young women who meet at an audition for dancers at San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub.

First there’s Grace Lee, who grew up in a small town in Ohio – a town so small that, apart from her parents, Grace has never met another Chinese person and has never even tasted Chinese food. She has come to San Francisco to escape from her abusive father and is hoping to build a career for herself in show business.

Then there’s Helen Fong, whose family is one of the richest and most respected in Chinatown. Her strict parents disapprove of her decision to work in a nightclub…until Helen points out that she will be earning much more than in her current job at the Chinese Telephone Exchange. Helen appears to have led a sheltered life, but is hiding some secrets which she is reluctant to reveal even to her friends.

Finally, there’s Ruby Tom from Hawaii. Ruby, who is the most outgoing and flamboyant of the three, also has a big secret: although she has allowed everyone to think she is Chinese, she is actually Japanese. If the authorities learn the truth, Ruby could be in trouble, especially when anti-Japanese sentiment increases following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Three girls with very different personalities and from very different backgrounds! Despite having little in common, they are drawn together that day at the audition and become friends, helping and supporting each other as they try to fulfil their ambitions. As the months and years go by, though, the girls find that their friendship is tested by a series of lies and betrayals, disagreements and withheld secrets.

China Dolls was compelling enough to keep me interested right to the end but I found it quite disappointing after Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. The main reason for my disappointment was something which should have been the strong point of the book: the friendship between Grace, Helen and Ruby. It just wasn’t convincing at all! The three of them didn’t even seem to like each other and were certainly not ‘like the Three Musketeers’, as they claimed. They said and did some terrible things to each other and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just go their separate ways in life.

The structure of the novel, with the three girls taking turns to narrate chapters, was also a problem for me. I got the impression that the story Lisa See really wanted to write was Grace’s – she is the easiest character to like and identify with, and she seemed to get a few more chapters than the others too – so I think I would rather have had the entire book written from Grace’s perspective. Having said that, Ruby’s story had the potential to be the most interesting, particularly after Pearl Harbor, and she was also the only one whose narrative voice felt significantly different (filled with some of the lively slang of the period); the other two were interchangeable and sometimes it was easy to forget who was narrating.

Grace, as I’ve mentioned, was my favourite of the three girls but she didn’t have much competition as I really disliked both Helen and Ruby – particularly Helen, whom I never really felt I understood or could have any sympathy for, despite some of the ordeals she had been through. Of the novel’s other characters, only one or two play a significant part in the story, and the rest are just secondary – though I was interested to discover, after finishing the book, that some of the characters I’d assumed were fictional were actually people who really existed.

The historical backdrop of the story is excellent; everything feels thoroughly researched and we are given lot of great insights into the entertainment world of the 1930s and 1940s, in particular what it was like to work in a Chinese nightclub and the challenges facing the Chinese performers. The book deals with lots of serious issues – from racism and prejudice to domestic violence and wartime atrocities – but because the main characters were so shallow, I felt that these issues weren’t explored in as much depth as they could have been.

So, not a favourite Lisa See novel, but still worth reading for its depiction of Chinese American life in the first half of the twentieth century.

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9 thoughts on “China Dolls by Lisa See”

  1. I read one of her books with a book group I belong to, but I didn’t care for it (partly because it discussed foot-binding in entirely too much detail for me). Perhaps unfairly, I’ve avoided her books since then. This one sounds interesting but uneven – I’ll keep it in mind.

    1. Was it Snow Flower and the Secret Fan that you read? I remember there was a whole chapter on foot-binding, which wasn’t very pleasant! At least there was nothing like that in this book.

  2. It’s always frustrating when a writer you know can be excellent turns out instead to be patchy. Do you spend time on the next book – just in case or do you give up and pass on to someone else. Will you look for her next book, do you think?

  3. I was rather disappointed by this one too, and agree with you that the friendship seemed pretty unconvincing. I wished we’d had more chapters from Helen’s perspective, because so much turned out to have happened to her and she behaved so badly – unless you really understood where she was coming from, hard to do with her story told so swiftly and right near the end. I liked the situation and this was actually the second novel I read for SNB which featured characters interned in Enemy Alien camps in the USA in WW2 (Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us was the other – a much better novel than this one). It was worth learning about those, I thought.

    1. I would have liked more chapters from Helen’s perspective too. Her story was so tragic and yet I felt strangely unmoved by it, probably because I found the character so difficult to understand and connect with. Of the three, Grace was the one I had most sympathy for.

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