I can tell you already that Shanghai Girls will make "the best books I read in 2010" list. Set in China and the United States from 1937-1957, Shanghai Girls covers the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, and China's civil war. Lisa See tells the story through the eyes of Pearl Chin, a modern girl born and raised in Shanghai, a "beautiful girl" who earns money with her sister by posing for painted advertisements for an assortment of products. Pearl is older sister to May, who is their parents' favorite, who is more beautiful than Pearl, needier than Pearl, and less educated than Pearl. But despite their differences, they are best friends.
When Shanghai Girls opens, Pearl and May lead relatively carefree lives -- the family has servants, they have new and modern clothes, and they are able to earn money to save for themselves. They have grand plans for their futures; they don't have bound feet and they won't be subject to arranged marriages. But their world is turned upside down when their father tells them that he squandered all of the family's money, including their earnings, and to ensure that he and their mother can continue living in the family home, he has sold the girls to Old Man Louie, an American born merchant, to become wives to his younger sons and move with them to America. They have no intention of becoming wives to men -- boys, actually -- they don't know or moving away from the city they love. But then the Japanese invade China, bombs are dropped on their beloved city, suffering is everywhere, and the girls have nowhere to go. Their family is disgraced, torn apart, leaving nothing but their bond to one another.
Shanghai Girls runs the gamut of emotions. Pearl and May's story is heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time. It is a story of survival, moving forward when you have nothing and recognizing the importance of family, loyalty, duty, and honor. Lisa See's writing is brilliant, detailed, and beautiful, and she touches upon cultural issues -- particularly with regard to gender and class -- the harshness of the immigrant life, sibling rivalry, and racism and discrimination in the United States during and after World War II, among other things. Pearl's first person, present tense viewpoint puts readers in the midst of the action; we can hear the bombs falling on Shanghai, we can feel the sisters' fear as they enter a country completely foreign to them, and we can feel their frustration as they struggle with being "worthless" women according to Chinese culture.
I have zero in common with Pearl, yet I felt a kinship with her from page one. In telling her story and not holding back -- even when doing so reveals her own flaws -- Pearl seems real. She's just a woman dealt a bad hand who could have given up and perished at the hands of the Japanese but kept plugging along, learning to be happy with her lot and discovering joy here and there along the way. Shanghai Girls is one of those books that you can't put down. Certain scenes hit me hard in the stomach and brought tears to my eyes, and I knew almost from the start that I would be deeply affected by this book...and absolutely love it.
Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award Nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year. She lives in Los Angeles.
Read an excerpt of Shanghai Girls here.
Check out the other stops on the Shanghai Girls blog tour by clicking here.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Shanghai Girls from Random House for review purposes
Courtesy of Random House, I have 2 trade paperback copies of Shanghai Girls up for grabs. Just leave a comment on this post with your e-mail address. This giveaway will run until Sunday, January 24, at 11:59 pm EST and is open to U.S./Canada addresses only.