In China Dolls, Lisa See (New York Times bestselling author of Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) brings to life the three-handed story of Helen, Grace and Ruby – three immigrant girls who meet by chance and audition to be dancers at San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub in 1938.
Helen is the most traditionally Chinese of the three girls, still living with her extended family and working at the telephone exchange until she meets the other girls and is drawn into a different world. Grace is also Chinese, but much more westernized, and she has run away from an abusive father to make her own fortune as a dancer in San Francisco. And Ruby, although she passes herself off as Chinese in order to join the other girls in the Forbidden City nightclub, is in fact Japanese, a secret that becomes terribly dangerous and difficult to keep when Japan bombs Pearl Harbour.
The novel is at its best in the early period as the girls establish themselves and their friendships in the San Francisco nightclub scene. The challenges of working and living as female immigrants in 1930s and ´40s America are interestingly portrayed from these three different perspectives. The aftermath of Pearl Harbour and the internment of Japanese immigrants are also fascinating.
But the relationships between the three main characters sometimes let this otherwise enjoyable book down. The twists and turns of the trio’s friendships at times lack believability, and it seems that their characters change in order to meet the needs of the plot, rather than their characters’ choices determining how events play out. By the end, the novel reads more like a saga than literary fiction, following the three women to a final, and perhaps unnecessary, reunion in 1988.