Thursday, February 21, 2013

Shanghai Girls

I read Lisa See's Shanghai Girls for a friend's book club, which will hopefully be my new book club, too.  First meeting is tonight, so fingers crossed.  Anyway, it's not a book I would have chosen on my own - the cover depicts two beautiful, smiling young Chinese women.  It looks pretty chick-lit.  Yeah, I know, you can't judge a book by its cover.  Except that sometimes you can.

The novel follows the lives of two sisters, our protagonist Pearl and her younger (and very much beloved by everyone) sister May, as their privileged Shanghai life crumbles before their eyes.  Their father has gambled away their fortune and arranges marriages to two American brothers to pay off his debts.  As the girls attempt to escape this fate, the Japanese army invades Shanghai as the Second Sino-Japanese War begins, and they ultimately land on a boat to the United States with the goal of reconnecting with the husbands they've only met once.

As their journey unfolds, they are hit with a series of tragedies: the brutal murder of their mother, a vicious gang rape, an unplanned and secret pregnancy, the discovery that their American husbands are broke, a struggle against racism and for American citizenship. 

The plot is actually intriguing, and See has done an incredible job of researching this book.  There are times when the women's story seems only to serve as a structure within which See can show off her knowledge of Chinese-American history.  In addition to the Battle of Shanghai, the Angel Island Immigration Station figures prominently, as does the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chaing Kai-shek, the rise of Mao's Red Army and historical figures from Los Angeles's Chinatowns (there were a couple of them) in the 1930s-50s. 

Unfortunately for See, her writing is not up to the ambitions of her story.  The book is told in the first person, present tense.  There are rare successes in first person, but I can't recall ever reading anything of substance in the first person present.  It's painful at times.  Further, she can't resist rubbing your face in the lessons of her novel.  For example, she wraps up a hundred pages that demonstrate the at times tense, always strong bond between May and Pearl with a lousy paragraph that states exactly this point.  Or she sticks a crummy paragraph about the perceived strength of men versus the inner strength of women in the middle of a book that shows exactly this. Also, the ending is completely contrived.

Next up: Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, translated by my favorites, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  A neat, old hard copy - a gift from a friend one Christmas - has been sitting on my shelf for years, but as soon as I learned these two translated the novel, I picked up the new version. 

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