Book Club Discussion (Round 2): Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

11 Apr

Because Lisa See is coming to my area to speak this week, both of my book clubs decided to read her title Shanghai Girls. You can read my review and previous book club discussion for some of my other opinions on the book.

Most of the group liked this title. See made us care about the characters, especially the sisters, and they were well-developed. I don’t have sisters, but those who did said the fighting between the characters reminded them of growing up with their siblings. It felt like See knew Pearl and May well and we wondered if they might be based on members of See’s family.

The first thing we had to talk about was May turning Sam in. None of us could believe she’d do something so stupid. It was hard to believe that she honestly thought she was helping. If she did, then she would have told Pearl and Sam. By keeping it a secret, it’s very evident that she’s trying to hide what she did. May is too modern and open in the American style to keep her mouth shut. If Pearl had done something similar, she never would have told. She would have died with the secret. The fight the two had at the end was a very central part of the plot and adds to my frustration of the book seeming unfinished. We were really shocked that it took 19 years for May to throw in her sister’s face who Joy’s real mother was. It seemed like something May would have resorted to it much sooner. A lot of us hadn’t realized how much Pearl was martyring herself until May brought it up. It wasn’t something that Pearl ever complained about. She almost seemed to enjoy her life and felt safe being a martyr. It was unlike Pearl to erupt at May the way she did and we wondered if some of her anger were misplaced and was really anger at Sam more than it was at her sister. We asked ourselves if May and Pearl could have repaired their relationship if Joy hadn’t run off. Would they have cut each other out of their lives if they didn’t have Joy to pull them back together? Pearl is always upset that their father preferred May though we felt that their mother preferred Pearl. The way their mother acts toward Pearl before she dies felt that way.

A lot of us hated May for what she did to Pearl in having an affair with ZG. I was alone in being blindsided by this twist. Everyone else saw it coming! I guess I’m blind to it all.

Several times, it was pointed out that May wasn’t as smart as Pearl. We didn’t really agree with that. On Angle Island, May shows us how smart she is and how she kept them there long enough for the baby to be an American. She didn’t let on when she was doing something smart. Only when it benefited her did she let on. May was good with money and found ways to keep the family going. She hid money away for an emergency the same way their mother had. She was resourceful, even if she wasn’t as book smart as Pearl.

One of the things that seemed inconsistent to us when it came to the girls was being Beautiful Girls at the beginning. We couldn’t believe that their parents would allow them to do that in Shanghai. The money must have been good for their parents to allow it. It seemed to be very against the cultural expectations they had for the girls.

In my last book club discussion, we focused on the Zodiac signs of Pearl and May. This time, we focused on Sam. He was the Ox, one who would plod along and be reliable, working for the family and doing what was needed of him. His suicide fits into this role, in a way, because it was a selfless thing for him to do in order to protect his family. We questioned if the Zodiac sign of a person morphed him or her into what they were instead of being a prediction of their personality type.

A lot of us learned a lot of history from the book. We weren’t aware of the Paper Son phenomenon and were a little blown away with how meticulous and thought-out the process was. We were equally shocked at the number of people claiming citizenship after the San Francisco Fire. I’d never heard of that! Most of us were familiar with Ellis Island immigration stories but Angel Island was something new. The holding and treatment of the women described sound terrible and we were shocked it hadn’t come to our attention prior.

Lisa See is 1/8 Chinese. She had writers in her family but never wanted to be a writer. She was told that you had to have sadness in your life to be a writer and didn’t want to be sad. I think it worked out for her anyway.

It was a really good discussion for us and we had a big turnout. Our next book is Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. We’ll see how the discussion goes, soon.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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