Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Pages: 309
Genre: Adult - Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: May 26, 2009
Source: Personal Copy
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "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."

The year is 1937 in Shanghai and there are two sisters, Pearl and May, who live affluent lives.  The two sisters are opposites in every way, but despite that, they have a close bond.  Pearl is strong and often feels overlooked by her family as her beautiful sister gets most of the attention.  One horrific day, their father says they have lost all of their money and in order to pay his debt, he must marry them off to Chinese-Americans that live in California and in turn, they will move there with their new husbands.  Obviously, Pearl and May are distraught at this news and start planning ways to avoid the inevitable; however, the world changes once again when Japan attacks Shanghai. The city is in absolute turmoil.  Now it is all about survival and the sisters realize getting to California might be their best and only option.  Shanghai Girls is an intense historical read that had me gripping the pages and reading late into the night.

When I first picked up Shanghai Girls, I thought it was going to be a light historical read; boy, was I wrong!  There are many intense moments and graphic scenes of war and crime.  When the Japanese soldiers take over Shanghai, the girls must survive and they barely make it out alive.  I was on the edge of my seat.  If you are looking for a light read, Shanghai Girls is not that by any means, but it's powerful, you will learn a lot about history and it will keep you interested.

My favorite parts of Shanghai Girls were the parts where Pearl and May must learn to adapt as immigrants in California.  It was interesting to read what they had to go through and how their relationship evolved.  See writes in such a manner that is compelling, filled with research, yet has a nice balance between history and the story line.  Ultimately, Shanghai Girls reflects the ups and downs of sisterhood, the jealousies, the fights, and most importantly, the secrets.  

Shanghai Girls ends with the readers questioning the fate of a few characters and I was happy to hear there is a second book called Dreams of Joy, which came out last May.  See has done a really good job researching Shanghai Girls and I can't wait to read what happens next in Dreams of Joy.  


  1. This reminds me of an audio I just grabbed from the library, Buddha's Attic.

  2. I always like when a book surprises me:) I go in expecting one thing and find something completely different - keeps me on my toes:) Beautiful review Christina, this is new to me but I love the sound of it!

  3. I'm really looking forward to reading this book! :)

  4. I bought this on Kindle and can't wait to read it. I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and this sounds like a story that will be just as good. I think it might make a good pick for book clubs. Thanks for your review!

    1. Christina- You are so's perfect for book clubs!

  5. I've had my eye on this one for quite a while -- especially after finishing Duncan Jepson's All The Flowers In Shanghai recently. I've got China on the brain!

    1. I'll have to check out Flowers in Shanghai! Thanks for stopping by, Meg!

  6. This sounds like a gripping story! I'll have to see if my library has it,

    Great review, Christina! :)

  7. Oh this is definitely a part of history that I haven't explored much. I'm going to ad this to my historical fiction list. Thanks!


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