Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Posted September 25, 2013 by Kara in book review, Kara / 3 Comments

Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa SeeShanghai Girls by Lisa See
Published by Random House on March 29th, 2010
Genres: adult, historical
Pages: 336
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three-stars

Shanghai, 1937. Pearl and May are two sisters from a bourgeois family. Though their personalities are very different - Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid - they are inseparable best friends. Both are beautiful, modern and living a carefree life ... until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away the family's wealth, and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to two Gold Mountain' men: Americans.As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, the two sisters set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the villages of southern China, in and out of the clutches of brutal soldiers, and even across the ocean, through the humiliation of an anti-Chinese detention centre to a new, married life in Los Angeles's Chinatown. Here they begin a fresh chapter, despite the racial discrimination and anti-Communist paranoia, because now they have something to strive for: a young, American-born daughter, Joy.Along the way there are terrible sacrifices, impossible choices and one devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel by Lisa See hold fast to who they are - Shanghai girls.

Just after finishing writing a review for another Asian fiction novel that I felt very ho hum about, I am reminded again of why Lisa See is one of the strongest writers in the genre out there. Shanghai Girls will not go down as one of my favorite Asian fiction novels by any means, but it is a very strong novel with multi-dimensional characters and a very strong plot.  


The sisterly bond in this novel was an awkward one. They spent so much time together, and yet they never seemed to like each other one iota. It’s weird because I have never had a sister, but I felt like there was so much HATE between them. I know sisters fight a lot, but this is above and beyond even what I could tolerate. They were both unlikable and cruel to each other almost constantly. Pearl sacrificed so much for May, and May was just shallow, driven, and selfish. But by the same token, I feel like Pearl was incredibly condescending to May, and she kept throwing her sacrifices for May in her face to make her feel guilty. Don’t do nice things for people if you are just going to turn around and use it against them. It was hard to root for either of them, honestly. So I just decided not to and focused on the plot instead. You know what though? Not a single character in this book was likable. Here’s the thing though. The characters may have been awful, but they certainly were not cardboard. It is a couple days since I have finished this book and they are still vivid in my mind. 

Lisa See’s writing is dynamic and engaging. She brings the places she writes about to life. In my mind I could see the bombs falling on Shanghai. I could see the tiny place the extended family lived in vividly. Los Angeles Chinatown completely became a setting in its own right. I did love the writing and all the different places I was reading about. The author really brought Angel Island and its horrible unfairness to life. 

The other thing I really need to mention are some of the disturbing moments in the novel I feel I need to warn a reader about. First of all, there is a trigger warning for an absolutely gruesome rape scene. It is written in a way that is not so graphic but psychologically uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want anyone to read that that had been through it. There is also a trigger warning for suicide. And it’s a doozy. Not only that, but there is a birth scene that also really bothered me. I’m not sure exactly why, but perhaps because of the location and circumstances of the birth? And then there is ANOTHER birth scene that was so freaking sad. I would think if you are a mother, this stuff may bother you. I am trying not to spoil, but yeah, it needed to be said. 

The ending is disappointing if you go into it not knowing that Dreams of Joy is actually the sequel to Shanghai Girls. This is a duology, not a standalone. When I originally bought it, I did not know that, so you might not either. They probably should be read together, but if you are blogger overloaded with review copies like me, that is probably not going to happen. So just keep that in mind. You might want to choose not to read it until you can read them together. It’s not a cliffhanger exactly, but it is pretty damn close and not satisfying in the least.

I do recommend Shanghai Girls but with reservations. I didn’t like this nearly as much as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and I didn’t relate to the characters in nearly the same way. The story is compelling and I enjoyed reading it, but it’s not going to be close to a favorite book. That said, I will definitely read the sequel. Part of that is because I own it already, so why not?

3 responses to “Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

  1. I’m surprised I haven’t read a Lisa See book yet, I went through a huge phase of reading asian fiction a while back, I adore reading about the culture. This sounds really interesting despite its shortcomings and the rape scene sounds difficult to get through but still will put it on my list to check it out! Great review Kara

  2. I am a month behind on Great Imaginations in my reader. THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. I’m trying to dig myself out of the whole that is vacation and moving to WP, but wow.

    Anyway, you managed to finish this one! Yay! But boo on not loving it. I think I own two or three of See’s books, though maybe not this one? I’m not sure. I hope I like them better.

    Also, bleh for birth scenes. No no no.

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