Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (4/5)

7 Mar

I’ve been meaning to read Lisa See for a while. I’ve had Snow Flower and the Secret Fan on my shelf for a year but when I heard she would be speaking in my area in April, I rushed out to buy her two-book series, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. While I’ve put off the second one, the first became my book club selection for March and I snatched it up.

Cover image via

Cover image via

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (Shanghai Girls #1)

Summary from Goodreads:

May and Pearl, two sisters living in Shanghai in the mid-1930s, are beautiful, sophisticated, and well-educated, but their family is on the verge of bankruptcy. Hoping to improve their social standing, May and Pearl’s parents arrange for their daughters to marry “Gold Mountain men” who have come from Los Angeles to find brides.

But when the sisters leave China and arrive at Angel’s Island (the Ellis Island of the West)—where they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months—they feel the harsh reality of leaving home. And when May discovers she’s pregnant the situation becomes even more desperate. The sisters make a pact that no one can ever know.

This book was easy to binge-read on an airplane. Pearl and May are great characters to fall in love with. See did a great job of describing Shanghai and Angle Island which were my favorite parts of the book. It was easy to see the world through Pearl’s eyes and understand her frustrations with May and when May spoke her mind, it was easy to see why she thought Pearl was wrong or difficult. The cultural differences were easy to understand the way See described them and I could see the beauty and terror in the interactions between Chinese and American ways. I’m looking forward to more from this author.

May and Pearly were great characters to me. Both were self-absorbed and shallow enough to be believable as spoiled rich girls, but smart and quick enough to be heroines in their own story. The part at Angle Island defined the relationship to me and I really loved what it said about their sisterhood. Sam was a great character (and this is not a name bias) and I wanted to get more out of him than we did. When he revealed his origins, I thought Pearl would let him into her life more, but their relationship seems to remain superficial. I felt she never loved Sam in the way he deserved to be loved. Their relationship started off on a bad foot but Pearl didn’t seem to do anything to fix it.

I’m not sure I had a favorite character in this book. The easy answer would be Pearl, but I thought she was rather selfish a lot of the time. She was very focused on her own problems and only slightly opened herself to her sister’s concerns and woes. Old Man Louie was a little likable but our introduction to him was so negative that I could never say he was my favorite. I found Sam underdeveloped. Maybe their mother was my favorite character but we knew her for such a short time that it seems unfair to the book to say she was my favorite. I’m torn and I think for the first time I’m going to stand neutral on this one.

I related to Pearl’s frustration with her sister. I have no sisters, but I’ve had a similar frustration with friends. I’ve thought another woman was being shallow and selfish and shouldering duties onto me. I felt burdened and that my actions were unappreciated. I had similar moments to Pearl and realized that I was looking at things very differently than they were, that things seeming like a slight to me were not intended that way. I tend to be overly sensitive about everything so as much as I wish I could say this is not common, it happens a lot more than I’d like to admit.

Lisa See Image via

Lisa See
Image via

I liked Joy’s youth. It was fun to see her growing with her mother and aunt and see how precious she was, how she was able to change the family dynamic even if she wasn’t the son everyone was hoping for. She really was the joy in their lives.

I was really frustrated with the ending. I like when books in a series wrap up, each book having a completed story that doesn’t leave me with a cliffhanger for the next one. This book did not do that. There’s a major plotline just beginning when the book ends. I have the sequel on my shelf, but I have other books I’d like to read next. With book clubs and other commitments, I’m unable to jump into it right now so I’m left frustrated.

Pearl’s definition of family changed a lot through the book. Her father was dead to her before his assumed death, she watched her mother die, and her daughter was not her own. She did not accept her in-laws as family and even her husband was estranged to her for a long time. Though her relationships with the in-laws changed over time, no one could ever touch the relationship between Pearl and May. At the end, we see that relationship strained but it won’t break. The two girls have been through so much together that when the toughest challenge comes, they will face it together.

Writer’s Takeaway: I keep going back to this, but the ending really bothered me. I like series that are made of defined shorter books. Each Harry Potter book covered one school year and had a resolution. Each of Stieg Larsson’s books had a conclusion to the plotline. The Hunger Games each covered an arc of the story. But I didn’t feel that this book did. Joy’s identity crisis started toward the end of the book and led to an unspeakable loss and never came to a close. The book ended with a long journey just about to begin and a feeling that something bad was coming. I’m not reading the second book immediately and I’m really disappointed in how this left off. To me, the two should be one book with a complete arc instead of two books cutting one story in half.

If it weren’t for the ending, it would have been great. Four out of Five stars.

This book fulfills 1920-1939 in my When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: A Novel of a Chinese-American Experience | A Latter-Day Bluestocking
Shanghai Girls | Whimsical Tales of Travel & Lifestyle


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: