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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

shanghai girls

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See
Unabridged, 13 hr. 29 min.
Random House Audio
Janet Song (Narrator)
May 26, 2009

Genre: Historical fiction

Source: Downloaded audio from my local library

“In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business, twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Though both sisters wave off authority and tradition, they couldn’t be more different: Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree . . . until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from California to find Chinese brides.

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America. In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.

At its heart, Shanghai Girls is a story of sisters: Pearl and May are inseparable best friends who share hopes, dreams, and a deep connection, but like sisters everywhere they also harbor petty jealousies and rivalries. They love each other, but each knows exactly where to drive the knife to hurt the other the most. Along the way they face terrible sacrifices, make impossible choices, and confront a devastating, life-changing secret, but through it all the two heroines of this astounding new novel hold fast to who they are–Shanghai girls.”

I have adamantly avoided novels set in Asia because I have never had that much interest in the part of the world. Not because I have any negative opinions of the people or the history of this area, but the lifestyle is outside of my typical comfort zone of the European sphere. Shanghai Girls made this transition to Asian settings painless for me because Shanghai in the 1930’s is very metropolitan, Westernized, and modernized.

This book is a family story. It is the story of two sisters (as well as various extended family members and false family members) and the things that they will go through and do for each other. I don’t have any siblings so I can’t personally connect to the sibling experience, however the author makes the sister relationship so tangible that you can connect with it. You get to see the family dynamics of new immigrants, old immigrants, and subsequently the generations born in the United States. I absolutely loved the characters that Lisa created – all of them, even the ones I didn’t like were so well written that they hang around with you for a long time after finishing the book.

My favorite aspect of this novel was the immigrant experience. I have always been fascinated with immigrant stories after hearing my own family’s immigration stories from my grandparents years ago. In this book you are exposed to the total immigrant experience from the logistics of how to get to the United States, what they endured at Angel Island (which was a substantial portion of the novel), what still hung over their heads following arrival, and what the immigrant status meant in the United States. This was the type of depth I was looking for, and thought I was going to get when reading Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan, but didn’t get. I know that the Ellis Island and Angel Island experiences were quite different but I was looking for real stories and that is what I got with Shanghai Girls. You really got the feeling of what it might have been like to have been in their shoes. I also can truthfully say that I learn A LOT from this novel.

This book has some very heavy and dark moments and is certainly not for the light at heart but I feel that it totally captured the experience of the times. I couldn’t put this one down and will definitely be reading Dreams of Joy which is a continuation of this story.



This is a book that I am very glad to have selected to listen to on audio book. The narration was wonderful and added so much to the reading experience. Her voice set the tone for the book and I certainly appreciated being able to hear the pronunciations of the Chinese words. The pacing of the reading was perfect.

Author Lisa See also has written the following novels: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Dreams of Joy, On Gold Mountain, and Peony in Love. You can visit See’s website for additional information about the books. Each book has some awesome features on its page for additional exploration. If you would like to preview the story before reading it, why not try out this excerpt of the book?

You can also watch this book talk with the author about Shanghai Girls where she provides some historical background and her connections with the novel.  It is quite fascinating and doesn’t give any spoilers that you don’t get out of the book blurb:

Reviews of this book by other bloggers:

Here are some choices for purchasing the book: Amazon, B&N, RJ Julia (my fav indie bookstore).


Copyright © 2013 by The Maiden’s Court


  1. Thanks for your great review. I read this book and enjoyed it too.

  2. Fabulous review, Heather. I loved See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but wasn't impressed by Peony in Love. I've put off reading this one because of it, even though I have it on my shelf. I'll have to make a point of reading it soon.

    1. I will keep that in mind - I haven't read any of her other books but definitely want to read Dreams of Joy.

  3. Lisa See is a great author to read. I need to still read the sequel to this book but other than I think I have read all her historical fiction as well as one of her earlier crime novels which I wasn't all that fussed by!

    1. I will certainly be checking out the rest of the historical novels - will probably skip the crime ones.


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