Pearl and May are two sisters born in Shanghai, China, in the early 20th century. Raised in luxury with traditional Chinese parents, they become the “beautiful girls” adorning Chinese posters advertising modern products. On the cusp of what appears to be a bright future balancing tradition and modernity, their father loses everything and arranges their marriage to “Gold Mountain men” living in San Francisco, California. Horrified by this loss and the fear engendered by this arrangement, they seek to escape this future and instead are plunged into the nightmare of the Japanese invasion of China.
Betrayal, unspeakable violation by the invaders, and dire poverty force Pearl and May to compromise everything true for the sake of survival. They arrive in America in the early 1930s and undergo a lengthy, torturous investigation at the infamous Angel Island, a place designed to permit entry to those with legitimate connections and deport anyone with suspicious backgrounds. The birth of Joy facilitates a quick entry, and the remainder of the tale harbors the sorrows and joys borne out of a series of fabricated stories. Later tragedy will again result from the family’s exposure to the little-known “Confession Period” of American history rooted in the fear of encroaching Communism.
The outstanding quality of this novel is the way Lisa See has captured the essence of those clinging to the traditions of their ancestral home and embracing the beauty and boundless possibilities of American life. The fear, conflict, joy and love of every scene are so palpably described that the reader is vicariously living each event, thought and consequence, including the endearing, complex relationship of siblings caught up in the vicissitudes of immigration. Shanghai Girls is another phenomenal addition to Lisa See’s masterpieces of historical fiction. Stunning!