Shanghai Girls tells the story of sisters Pearl and May who grow up in Shanghai surrounded by luxury in the 1930s. Their lives are easy and full of beautiful things until their father loses everything gambling. Gone is the money and gone are Pearl and May – they’ve been sold off to a Chinese-American as wives to his sons. Though the sisters have no intention of going to America as part of these arranged marriages, the Japanese invasion proves otherwise.
After many hardships the girls end up in America with their new family only to face even more hardships. Life in America is very difficult for foreigners. The novel, which spans 20 years, shows Pearl and May facing a strange new family, a strange new culture and strange new prejudices. While they work to survive in their new country, they try in their own ways to hold on to their past.
Traditions, family, history and dark secrets all play a part in shaping the story, a story that comes alive through author Lisa See’s beautiful writing. Her characters are rich and engaging, and I found myself easily getting sucked into their struggles…which is perhaps why I did not love this novel. It was almost too painful. Reading the book was emotionally exhausting as Pearl continually had to take on loss, heartbreak and turmoil.
Maybe that’s what life is really like, surviving challenge after challenge and still enduring. But when it comes to my books, I want even just the tiniest bit of escapism mixed in with my substance.