As part of the local library coalition’s Everyone’s Reading program, I had my first book club discussion about Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls. The second one will be in mid-April and I’m excited to meet her soon after!
A lot of the people in my club had mediocre reactions to the book. They liked it but weren’t blown away. I think the ending ruined a lot of people’s opinions of it like it did to me. Several others brought up being disappointed with it. I’ve heard that the sequel makes you like Shanghai Girls better and that her solo book, Sun Flower and the Secret Fan, is enjoyable as well. I have both, but I’m not sure when I’ll have the time to read them!
See herself has a unique background. She was born in Paris but raised in LA Chinatown. If you look at her, you wouldn’t guess that she’s Chinese but she says a lot of the family she was raised with don’t look like her. We felt that she felt the need to teach the reader a lot about Chinese culture and wondered if feeling disconnected from her heritage had something to do with it. At times, it was a bit preachy instead of feeling like a fiction novel.
No one in our group knew much about Chinese history in the early 20th century. We felt that See created a really good image of what life was like, depicting the clash between tradition and modern. It was clear Pearl loved her city though as time went on, it lost its shine in her memories and she remembered the death on the street and the unfair ways rickshaw pullers had to live and the smell of too many people crammed into the city. We got to see the good and bad of the city through Pearl.
Vern was a unique character in the book and we wondered if he’d come into play more in the second book. He didn’t have an effect on the plot other than giving May a sure claim to citizenship. He didn’t further the plot in any other way and took a lot of time in the book. He wasn’t well fleshed out as a character and it felt like he could easily have been dropped. Oh well.
Because Pearl told the story and was a very strong character, our group thought the story was unfair to May. When they had their blow-up at the end, it was easy to see how Pearl was focused in her own world and didn’t notice the world the way May saw it. It’s true that Pearl had stopped living and was in survival mode. They represented two very different paths of life, Pearl having the traditional loving husband and a daughter while May had freedom but no husband or child to love her. We suspect that each was jealous of the other. There was a lot of contrast between the two in their zodiac signs, as well. May the sheep was very sheepish at the beginning, following what had to be done while Pearl dragon fought tooth and nail for what she wanted. Once they arrived in America, they acted like the other. Pearl didn’t fight May when things between them were strained. We would have expected so much more tension between sisters considering what they went through.
We were all surprised by the suicides associated with verifying citizenship status. It seemed a very sudden thing but our leader did some research and found that it was a common practice at the time. If there wasn’t someone to tell the truth, if they were dead, then everyone else was safer. Sadly, it was a sacrifice to make things better for the rest of the family.
I’ll have another discussion in a few weeks. It will be interesting to see if there are different opinions from that group.
Until next time, write on.