Lisa See’s “Shanghai Girls”

“Everything always returns to the beginning,” says May to her sister, Pearl, in Shanghai Girls, a rich, thought-provoking, beautifully written psychological drama, taking place in China between 1937 and 1957.

May says these words almost at the end of the novel, and Pearl wonders whether she’s referring to the “original meaning of the aphorism—that no matter what we do in life, … we will have children who’ll disobey, hurt, and disappoint us just as we once hurt and disappointed our parents—or is she thinking about Shanghai and how we’ve been trapped in our final days there ever since we left, forever destined to relive the loss of our parents, our home…” (276)

I think May means both points because people can never leave their experiences behind, good or bad. After all, our past shapes us, makes us what we become.

These two sisters certainly cannot forget their happy past, free of financial and emotional burdens, especially because they never regain what they have once lost.

Two decades earlier, they enjoy the life of the privileged: they are the so-called “beautiful girls” (i.e., models) in Shanghai (“the Paris of Asia”), pampered by their well-to-do parents, living in a big house with servants, modeling in the evenings, partying through the night with their rich friends, sleeping late the next morning. This carefree life ends abruptly when their father makes a startling announcement: He has gambled away all of his family fortune, so he has no choice but to arrange marriages for his daughters. He has practically sold them to Chinese men from Los Angeles. May and Pearl have no choice but to obey so that their parents won’t end up on the street, begging.

And so the young women’s ordeal has begun. Before they are able to leave for the US, they suffer from the hands of the Chinese gang and the Japanese invaders; but when they finally arrive in the States they suffer from both the American authorities and general population.

The sisters have to make heartbreaking decisions and sacrifices; they share a disturbing secret; they cannot return to their homeland, but they have a hard time surviving in their new country. When they finally feel at home in the States, they have to deal with new disasters.

The novel is so emotionally-charged and so suspenseful it grips your attention (and your heart!) from the first page and holds it till the last.

Five stars! 🙂 Highly recommend!

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