Sometimes you read a book and have no idea that it’s going to leave you hanging.
That’s what happened when I read Shanghai Girls by Lisa See recently. The story of Pearl and May Chin trying to build a new life in America while holding onto what happened back home, ended abruptly when Pearl’s daughter, Joy, decides she wants to return to China and help build the People’s Republic of China. She leaves in the middle of the night and when Pearl wakes up to find her gone, she knows exactly what she’s done and basically picks up her life and follows her.
So there’s me nearing the end of Shanghai Girls thinking that there sure is a lot that still needs resolving in these last 20 pages.
That’s because the story wasn’t finished and I wasn’t going to get any resolution from this book.
Thankfully the sequel, Dreams of Joy, already existed – I didn’t have to wait a couple of years for Lisa See to write it.
Dreams of Joy splits the story between Joy, as she returns to China, optimistic about Chairman Mao’s plans to turn the People’s Republic of China into an egalitarian paradise, and Pearl as she follows Joy and does everything she can to try and convince her to come home with her. May, such a big part of Shanghai Girls, is relegated to a background character, her voice an occasional one through the letters and money she tries to send to Joy and Pearl.
I really liked Shanghai Girls (just like I enjoyed China Dolls). I’ve said this before, but Lisa See is extremely adept at creating a really vivid sense of place. And that’s very much true of Dreams of Joy as well – the commune where Joy finds herself is ably brought to life, contrasted by the altered reality of Shanghai where Pearl spends most of her time. But it took me a while to enjoy this story – Joy drove me insane for easily the first half of the book.
Hers is the typical first generation story – she has no idea how much her parents sacrificed in order for her to have the American life she took for granted. At the first opportunity, she runs off to China to throw herself into Communism, despite the warnings from her family about all the terrible things that are actually happening. She is incredibly naive about politics, the reality of the peasant lifestyle she admires so much, even relations between men and women. She digs herself into a hole and is then too proud to do admit she might have been wrong about everything.
I’m also not going to pretend like theme of mother love wasn’t fairly heavy handed through the whole thing. It was pretty clear that See wanted to make the point that there’s nothing a mother won’t do for her child. It’s not until Joy herself becomes a mother that she can see how much her mother gave up for her. That’s when she gets the strength she needs to fix things.
Despite these flaws, there was a point where I did become invested in the outcome. I was already so fond of Pearl from Shanghai Girls and I was glad to witness her finding her own strength. So redeeming was the rest of the book that I even shed some tears at it’s conclusion. At this stage in the game, I’d probably read anything Lisa See wrote and I would still totally recommend Dreams of Joy to other readers.