Thursday, March 8, 2012

Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See

For some reason I expected to really like this book. Let's just say I won't be running out to get the sequel.

I like novels that are set in other countries, other cultures. Fiction is the perfect place to learn about different worlds; if it's well done, you just ease into the past, or the Amazon, or an Amish town, and the author reveals the details as part of the plot. This book, however, seemed to beat me over the head with its cultural commentary. The opening chapters were full of descriptions of food and clothing; and I found myself mentally swatting them away, wanting to get to the plot.

The story starts in Shanghai in the 1930's. It recounts the saga of a pair of sisters as they are forced to flee their beloved city after the Japanese invasion. They end up in Los Angeles, negotiating in-laws and racism. Pearl, the eldest and the narrator, suffers the most, and never lets you forget it. As she is forced to see the world through the lens of adulthood, she begins to take on the words and attitude of her mother, to whom she naturally acted in a condescending and disobedient manner as a child. Unfortunately, the quirky independence that made the young Pearl a likely heroine are buried in the bitter adult. She ends up sounding cranky and put-upon.

I didn't hate the book, it just didn't meet my expectations. It did remind me of how happy I am to have been born where I was, and how glad I am that my own girls were welcomed with joy rather than disappointment. Despite the many incredible things Chinese culture has to offer, its historical denigration of women is something I will never be able to read about without feeling appalled.

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