Everything always returns to the beginning – “Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See

November 20, 2011 at 10:55 pm Leave a comment

Cover of "Shanghai Girls: A Novel"

Cover of Shanghai Girls: A Novel

“Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See, Published 2009

I read Lisa See’s  “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” earlier this year and I enjoyed it. But there is something about “Shanghai Girls” that resonates more for me and I really found it heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

The novel begins in 1937. May and Pearl are two sisters who are born to a fairly affluent family in Shanghai.  Very quickly into the book, May and Pearl find out that their father has gambled all of their wealth away and they must be sold as wives to an American-Chinese family.  As all of this is happening, the Japanese begin their brutal attack on China and the sisters find themselves fleeing the city.  What follows is a series of truly harrowing events that eventually land the sisters in an immigration camp outside of San Fransisco.  They have to reinvent themselves while at the same time trying to negotiate life in the U.S., a country that does not want them.  Throughout, the sisters remain together although they often cause each other a great deal of pain.

“We’re like long vines with entwined roots…We don’t necessarily share the same emotions or ways of looking at the world but i can love her just as she is. My resentments are gone – at least until the next time she hurts my feelings or I do something that irritates or frustrates her so much that she pulls away from me.”

Lisa See tries to accomplish a lot in this book. She takes the reader through the cruel attack on China by the Japanese* during WWII, the U.S. and its severe oppression of the Chinese, the immigrant’s experience in a new country, and the “Red Scare” with its ludicrous but irreparably harmful effects.  And See does a good job using this historical backdrop for the characters. But I think See is at her best as a writer when she is writing about women and their relationships.  The sisters in this book are jealous of each other, irritate each other, and are convinced that they are making more sacrifices than the other – they are all of those things that only sisters can be. But the sisters also walk broken carrying the other to safety, they laugh together, they share life-altering secrets, they are proud of the other’s greatest moments, and in the end they  dearly  love even the most broken parts of  each other.

Siblings know us from the beginning – they know our past, our present and are, whether we like or not, a driving force in our futures.  They make us crazy, they make us cry, they can hurt us like no one else can but ultimately they are the roots that keep us tethered. It is an amazing relationship that nothing can replace and this novel captures it perfectly.

*For more on Japan’s occupation of China I would suggest reading “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Chang

For other reviews on “Shanghai Girls” check out:

Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See 

Book Review: Shanghai Girls 

Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

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Entry filed under: November 2011 reads. Tags: , , , , , .

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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