Published in 2009, Shanghai Girls takes place between 1937 and 1957. The book begins in Shanghai, and is the story of the Chin sisters, May, age 18, the little sister or moy moy, and Pearl, age 21, the elder sister or jie jie. They are "beautiful girls", which means they are models.
"We are young, we are beautiful, and we live in the Paris of Asia."They pose for an artist, Z.G. Li, who paints them on omnipresent calendars, posters, and advertisements. (They also adorn the stunning cover of this book.) May is considered the more beautiful of the two because of her porcelain complexion, at least by her father, Baba, whereas Pearl, the more educated of the two, blushes easily and has "cheeks which capture the sun".
~Shanghai Girls, Lisa See
"Am I jealous of my sister? How can I be jealous even when I adore her? We share Long--Dragon--as our generational name. I am Pearl Dragon and May is Beautiful Dragon. She's taken the Western spelling of her name, but in Mandarin mei is one of the words for beautiful, and she is that."Privileged in many ways, the Chin sisters earn money to spend on themselves, and live a life of relative luxury. Their father owns a rickshaw business, and the family is prosperous enough to employ seven servants. Beautiful, young, and idealistic, Pearl and May live in the present, and think things will always remain the same. Thoroughly modern girls who've escaped many of the old traditions, such as foot-binding, which has crippled their mother, they expect to marry for love. But their circumstances change suddenly and drastically, and with the onset of World War II, they must become survivors--rather than beautiful girls. In the book, which is told in the present tense by Pearl, the girls undergo many hardships, including a loss of financial status, the threat of arranged marriages, the Japanese occupation of China, and the need to leave their beloved Shanghai. Although their natures may be "set" by the Chinese zodiac--Pearl is a Dragon, strong and stubborn, while May is a Sheep, peaceful and adorable--throughout the book the sisters change and develop and mature. While May's great beauty continues to open doors, she also shows that she has intelligence and ambition, while Pearl displays her ability to adapt, and her softer side emerges. What doesn't change, though, is their love and support for each other, although there are the rivalries which may always exist between sisters.
~Shanghai Girls, Lisa See
Shanghai Girls has an intimate feel to it which drew me in from the very first page of the book (to determine if you'd also be drawn in, you can read an excerpt). I felt as if I were reading Pearl's diary. Lisa See's exquisite attention to detail cast me back in time to the exotic, international city of Shanghai (and later to other locales). I imagined myself pulled in a rickshaw, tasting savory dishes of shrimp with water chestnuts and dumplings or chia-tzu. In this novel, I learned about World War II from a Chinese perspective, and also about China's civil war, and deepened my appreciation for historical fiction. I discovered many things about Chinese culture and thought, such as that the Cantonese word for wife is fu yen, which means woman and broom--which should scare off even the most marriage-minded Chinese girl! There are a few surprises sprinkled throughout the novel, which made for an even more compelling read. Thankfully, there will be a sequel, because I'm quite eager to know what happens next.
Exciting news! The publisher is generously offering two copies of Shanghai Girls (the trade paperback version) as giveaways (US/Canada only).
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Special thanks to Lisa from TLC for including me on this book tour, and to Kathleen from Random House for sending me the book. Having read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I adored and shared with my daughter, Jasmine, I was determined to read another Chinese-themed novel by Lisa See. For more reviews and other giveaways of this novel, please visit the other stops on the Shanghai Girls book tour.
Shanghai Girls counts toward Jennie's China Challenge, and the Women Unbound Reading Challenge, hosted by Aarti, Care, and Eva.