Posts tagged ‘China’

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

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

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

No snarky title for “Snowflower and the Secret Fan” by Lisa See

Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, Published 2005 

I enjoyed this book. Though “enjoyed” is maybe the wrong word.

I love Pearl Buck and her “House of Earth” trilogy is probably the last time I read anything remotely good about China’s traditions and customs always shown through family and character development (if you have not read this trilogy I would highly suggest it). This book “Snowflower and the Secret Fan” does a similar thing but for Chinese woman in the latter part of the 19th century.  I will not say the writing is as good as Buck (that would be hard) but I will say the writing is well done and works well to propel the story which is what really carries this book.

Snow flower and the secret fan: a novel [Book]

Lily, the narrator, is born into a fairly poor family but is found by the local diviner to be special.  So her life becomes invariably linked to another girl of higher status, Snowflower, and they became laotongs –  lifelong friends linked by tradition and contract.  They go through all the rites of the Chinese life together – foot binding, marriage, childbearing, poverty, shame, honor and eventually death.  They learn the ancient art of “nu shu” which was a writing only known by Chinese women that allowed them to communicate with each other without fear that the men in their lives would punish them for their candor.  Lily’s and Snowflower’s lives weave together, unravel and then mend.  All of this documented on a fan that carried the stories of their lives in messages back and forth.

Ultimately this is a story about tradition and the harm it can do to those considered to be the least – here, as often it is, that is the women.  Chinese women were beaten, starved and set apart all to honor tradition.  They bound their feet literally breaking their bodies and hobbling themselves for the respect of their future in-laws.  They hoped to be pregnant but when that joy came they unceasingly worried they would have a daughter. Their lives were spent in fear of shame, in hope of a restrained happiness, and looking forward to an ill-defined sense of honor.

I am not saying that traditions and a sense of honor are bad in all cases. What I am saying is that any society needs to step carefully.  What I found most telling with this book was the fact that women created this restraint, tradition and pain for each other.  Mothers’ bound their little daughters’ feet. Mothers-in-law scoffed at miscarriages and cruelly lamented the births of granddaughters.  Friends judged their girlhood friends for choices that fell away from the same traditions they themselves abhorred. And of course we, as modern women, do all of these things still. We all hold our daughters to traditions that even we don’t understand – why did I buy my two year old that lip gloss and then tell her she looked pretty?  We are all too young, too old, too loose, too bitchy, too smart “for her own good.”  We pluck, we diet, we enhance and exfoliate, we preen, we wax, we paint ourselves.  It can be painful and it can be constricting. We break our feet everyday to twist ourselves into things we are not. But we don’t have to. I am not sure the Chinese women had (or do have) a choice.

But our lives as women are beautiful as well. This book is also about friendship and, even with everything I have said above about how women hurt each other and themselves, at the end of the day a woman’s friendship can be as redemptive and as meaningful as the most fulfilling romance of your life.  And that often is enough.  Until L’Oreal tells you that “we have to do ten things at once. Perfectly.” And you catch yourself thinking “what does that mean?” and then “how can I do that?”

For more on foot binding check out:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=8966942

http://www.neatorama.com/2010/07/07/the-bygone-practice-of-foot-binding-in-china/

September 1, 2011 at 8:59 pm 3 comments


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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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