Monday, August 25, 2014

Beautiful girls in the city by the bay

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
I think Lisa See is one of those authors that I like in theory more than I do in actuality.  The plot summaries of her books sound so fascinating!  They take place at such pivotal moments in history, in such vivid settings!  But somehow, the characters never seem to come alive for me, and I'm left vaguely disappointed.

This is pretty much what my experience was reading Shanghai Girls.  Two sisters living it up in Shanghai in the 1930s!  Then they move to the US and struggle to make ends meet through the 1940s.  And deal with the racism of the Communist scare in the 50s.  It all sounds so fascinating.  But it just didn't work for me.

The book did have its good points.  I really enjoyed learning about the high-flying lifestyle of the Chinese middle class between the wars.  I had never heard of the "beautiful girls" who posed for commercial artists in China in the 1930s, whose likenesses ended up anywhere from ads for matchsticks to (later on) propaganda for communism.  I also didn't know much about the conditions for immigration into the US in the 30s, and just how blatantly racist the system was.  It never fails to amaze me just how horribly western governments treated non-whites for so long.  And seeing just how deeply the Red Scare infiltrated people's everyday lives (especially those with a direct link to a Communist country) was eye-opening.  Really important, fascinating stuff.

But gosh, the characters did not do it for me.  The two sisters, Pearl and May, were hard to know and not very likable.  The story is told from Pearl's point of view, but she is not a very dynamic character, and it was a little boring to spend so much time inside her head.  She was scared of everything.  (Granted, much of it with good reason.)  And her sister, May, was so self-absorbed and spoiled that I didn't want to spend much time with her, either.  The other characters were fine, I guess, but didn't stand out as having distinct personalities.  Really, the book seemed to be more about all the suffering and hardship the characters went through rather than their development into strong and individual people.  This is how I felt when reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, too - I just felt like all the characters kept me at arm's length, and as a result, I just never felt emotionally connected to this one.

7 comments:

  1. Sorry to hear that these often fall flat for you. I've collected several of her books, but I have yet to read 'em. Story of my life. :)

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  2. Not so good then :/ I do want to try a book by her one day though

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  3. I feel rather the same way about Neil Gaiman. I enjoy his books, but never quite as much as I expect to.

    Of Lisa See's books, Shanghai Girls is the only one I've read. I mostly remember being really annoyed by the ending.

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    1. Yes, I agree. The ending left a lot to be desired.

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  4. I actually enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan but I read it ages ago and have had Shanghai Girls in my TBR since then. Unfortunately, my tastes have changed a lot since and I have a feeling I may not enjoy her books anymore. I'll probably give it a try some time.

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  5. Oh I have authors like that. Kate Morton is one. In theory she's the perfect author for me, but in practice I just don't love her books the way I want to love them. :/

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  6. Yes, I have found that while I tend to buy her books eventually... I don't tend to love them...

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