Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

A little while back I was debating whether I should preface my current book club selection (Dreams of Joy) by first reading its precursor (Shanghai Girls).  You all were kind enough to give me your opinions on either side of the question, and (based on Sam's (@ Tiny Library) thoughts and the fact that I already owned Shanghai Girls) I ended up going for it.

I'm glad I did.  While not necessary for the comprehension of the story in Dreams of Joy, (all the plot points are very well filled in,) reading Shanghai Girls added greater depth to my appreciation and ended up with me enjoying Dreams of Joy more than I would have otherwise, and even more than I did Shanghai Girls itself.  Lisa See does have a talent for transporting a reader to another time and place.

Shanghai Girls is the story of two sisters, two "beautiful girls" from Shanghai before WWII, who find themselves desperately trying to escape to America and adapting to lives they neither expected nor wanted.  I found the historical aspects interesting:  how the Chinese were treated even so many years after the Gold Rush had made them a despised race in California, how the "immigration" process worked, and the details of Chinatown in Los Angeles.  However, the use of present tense was very distracting and irritating to me, and there was a chunk of the book that felt like filler before the frantically paced ending.

Dreams of Joy picks up where Shanghai Girls leaves off, and I must say that it was pretty satisfying to be able to jump into it soon after finishing Shanghai Girls.  I'm rubbish at reading sequels and series: if it hadn't been a book club choice, I wouldn't have read either one.  That's one of the things I love about my book group: it forces me to branch out.  I've discovered some fabulous titles and authors that way.

Covering a point of history that I was abysmally ignorant about, (The Great Leap Forward in China in 1958,) Dreams of Joy was very interesting for me on the historical end.  Between seeing the difference between city life and country life, seeing how the socialist/communist government progressed, and getting a peek at the role art played in the whole propaganda scheme, I couldn't set the book down.
(images of propaganda posters (incredible agriculture!) courtesy of Wikipedia)

From Shanghai Girls:
"Because inside we still carry the dreams
of what could have been,
of what should have been,
of what we wish we could still be."

My book club finally met to discuss this book. The meeting ended up getting pushed at the last minute, and even two weeks later hardly anyone had finished it. Understandable, as the school year is ending and things are a bit crazy, but resulting in a very small discussion.  Of course, I've read so many other things in those 2 weeks that the books weren't fresh on my mind anymore (I try to time my reading so that I finish the book right before our meeting, ).  We met at a traditional Chinese restaurant, which was fun...I'm so much more used to mainstream Asian fusion, Thai, Japanese, etc. that it was nice to experience some no-nonsense Chinese.

So now that I've finally been coerced into reading Lisa See, I'm glad to have had the experience.  While being distinctly "contemporary fiction" in the sense that it is fairly quick to read and is more about the plot than anything else, I still found it enjoyable and came away having learned about a period of history I hadn't known about before.


  1. I need to read these as well...I've heard so much about them :)

  2. I have a coworker who loves Lisa See. And I got to hear her at a BEA breakfast one year and was impressed--she held her own against Steven Colbert! Guess one of these days I"ll get around to it.

    Are you by any chance interested in participating in a Not-yet-published Michael Chabon readalong that I'll be hosting in July?

  3. Peppermint, I was going to avoid them because I'd heard so much about them (hype scares me) but I am glad I did. :)

    Emily, so glad to hear that you were impressed with Lisa See in person - that can make such a difference! I went into the books ready to pick them apart, and they stood up to that. The historical aspects were the best for me. I've been stewing about your Chabon sounds wonderful, but... I've left a comment on your post. :)

  4. Yay, I'm glad that my recommendation worked out as I hate it when I recommend books that I love and people don't enjoy them.

    Which one did you prefer? I thought Shanghai Girls was stronger but did also enjoy Dreams of Joy.

  5. I enjoyed these books too. :)

  6. Sam, I'm very glad that you offered your opinion as it ended up working out quite well. I'm certain that I enjoyed Dreams of Joy more than I would have otherwise. I actually enjoyed it more than I did Shanghai Girls, for a combination of reasons. First, May bugged me so I was glad that she wasn't in the 2nd one much. :) The present-tense writing also bothered me, but I think I got used to it by the time I was reading Dreams of Joy. Mostly though, Dreams had much more history unfamiliar to me than Shanghai and I enjoyed learning something new.

    Jinky, good to hear! Have you read any others by Lisa See? I think my book club read Snow Flower & Secret Fan back before I moved back into the area and some of them seemed to like that one more.


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