Citizen Review: Shanghai Girls

We’re back with another M&Q customer review. This week, Jess Horowitz recommends a summer novel you won’t be embarrassed to be seen reading.

Shanghai Girls
Lisa See’s latest novel, Shanghai Girls, begins in 1937 and follows the adult lives of Pearl and May Chin, sisters who work as “beautiful girls,” epitomizing the modern, Western lifestyle to sell cigarettes, alcohol, and household products. Lively, international Shanghai was considered the Paris of the East, insulated from the Communist regime of the rest of China.

The Chin family was wealthy and respected; the family lived happily until the day Mr. Chin’s debt collectors came calling. Forced to marry a pair of suitors from America to repay their father’s debt, Pearl and May suddenly understand what lies outside of the walls of Shanghai. As the Japanese bomb their beloved city in what would lead to World War II, they begin the long journey to meet their husbands in Los Angeles.

As Pearl and May go from beautiful girls of privilege to overworked servants for their in-laws’ tourist attraction, China City, See sheds light on an underrepresented piece of American history and the immigrant experience. Her strength lies in her rich appreciation for detail, from the fibers of the traditional Chinese dress, the cheongsam, to the cameos of Chinese American film stars of the 1940s and 50s.

The reader is enveloped in a world torn by tradition, segregation, and the imaginary American Dream. Shanghai Girls is a great choice if you’re looking for a summer read with substance. It is a good starting off point to See’s canon of critically-acclaimed novels about Chinese history and culture.

Jess Horwitz lives in Uptown Minneapolis and works in book publishing.

We’re always looking for avid readers. Email me if you’re interested in becoming a citizen reviewer, too.–David E