If you have a sister, that word probably brings a few emotions to mind. Sister relationships are fascinating and multi-faceted. They can be supportive and loving or antagonistic and critical. And they can be all at once.
I’m thankful that I have a fabulous relationship with my sister. I can call my sister and talk for hours. Back when we were both stay-at-home moms, we often called each other 3-4 times a day, for all kinds of reasons, from mundane to profound. I trust her completely. I know she’s there for me, no matter what. It’s a comfort to really understand the depth of your relationships, in your heart, in your mind, in your gut.
But every relationship has its boundaries. They all have places where you don’t go. My two closest girlfriends each have sisters with whom they are extremely close and yet, there are some things they just don’t talk about with each other. Even my sister and I, for all the closeness and supportiveness in our relationship, have boundaries, too. I imagine all relationships have them, no matter how close or significant.
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See is a story about the Chin sisters, Pearl and May. Their relationship is as complex as any sister relationship, with love and support and betrayal and heartbreak, and quite a lot of antagonism. It begins in 1937 Shanghai. We follow their lives through the Japanese invasion and their escape to America, to find them begrudgingly settled in San Francisco during WWII and afterwards. It spans several decades in the characters’ lives, and through many life stages. Even with a rich historical and cultural backdrop, the sister and family dynamics are what I found most interesting throughout this book.
The Chin sisters’ relationship is strewn with jealousy. Each felt that the other one had it better than she did, or one was the parents’ favorite, or had the better husband or the better job, or one sacrificed more than the other…it got a little annoying a few times because I just couldn’t relate. I don’t see my own sister the way Pearl and May see theirs—with as much resentment as love. This did however, give the BABBs much to discuss---as we all have family and everyone can identify with a family story. Mostly I pitied the Chin sisters because all that hurt and resentment held them back.
Shanghai Girls is a thoroughly enjoyable read and very good historical fiction, even though the subject material and setting are often disturbing and depressing.
Ratings (For an explanation of my rating factors, please visit the Rating System Key page.)
Crack Factor – 8.0.
Tears Shed Factor – N/A. There’s plenty of drama in this book but I didn’t find it emotional, although I imagine many people would.
Distraction Factor – 9.25. Shanghai Girls is a haunting tale. Just like in See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, (one of my favorite books) there are images from this story that I’ll never forget.
Enrichment Factor – 9.0. Immigrant stories are frequently stories of hardship and discrimination. I really wonder if there was every any group that came here without it. The Chinese immigrants in this story had it pretty bad; they maneuvered through the anti-Japanese sentiments during WWII and then the anti-communist rampage right afterwards. I love fiction that gives me new knowledge and understanding of history and culture. This time and place was something I’d never studied before.
PeopleFactor – 8.5. See wrote the book in the first person. All the characters and events are narrated by Pearl, which definitely adds some limitation as you can’t always get inside the heads of the other characters. I don’t see that as a problem here, because through Pearl’s eyes, the reader gets a very good sense of all the characters and See crafts them like onions, with layers that Pearl peels away over time to reveal just how complex each one is. As soon as you think you’ve got them all figured out, See gives us a little more insight and…You’ll change your mind about everybody over and over again. It made for a more interesting read because the characters and their relationships evolve so much over time.
Story Telling Factor – 8.5. The majority of the BABBs had a couple of complaints about this book: 1) It ends very abruptly, and 2) they didn’t always like how See turned the plot. On a whole, however, I found See’s plot twists quite pivotal and necessary to keep the pace of the story going and bring certain characters to their destinies and certain plot lines to their climaxes. But I do have to admit the ending did tick me off. Apparently See had to set it up for the sequel: Finding Joy. Why write one book, when you can sell two at twice the price?
Writing Skills Factor – 8.5. See’s writing is raw. It’s very simple and clear and to the point. That rawness adds to the distraction factor as well. She doesn’t leave out the nasty and upsetting details.
Bad Ass Babe Factor – I’m abstaining from this rating. I didn’t really like Pearl or May that much as people, even though they were well developed characters. In the Bad Ass Babe arena, however, Pearl gets points for sheer endurance and their mother gets Mama Bear points.
Total Rating: 8.625