When I picked up Shanghai Girls, I was hooked ’til the last page. Lisa See’s writing is difficult to put down. The story of the two sisters, Pearl and May, begins in 1930s Shanghai. The girls earn their money posing as Chinese calendar models, or “Beautiful Girls,” and live a life of luxury, parties, night clubs, and excessive shopping and clothes-buying. But their world falls apart when they discover that their father owes money to a notorious gang. For payment, he’s arranged for both of his daughters to be married to strangers, and shipped abroad to their new husbands in San Francisco. The girls try to resist their fate, but are forced to flee their home once the Japanese start bombing the harbor of Shanghai.
Author See makes a point of expounding upon the girls’ privileged upbringing in the beginning, which draws a sharp contrast to what they soon meet, in the face of war and emigration. To make matters worse, May becomes pregnant, and not by her new husband. This in itself is a devastating secret the sisters must keep. It’s all May can do to pass the child off as her sister Pearl’s, and lose herself in a Hollywood career. But even more painful is the dynamic between the sisters and their shared daughter, Joy. Meanwhile, they and their in-laws also face the constant threat of deportation, as they’re not in the U.S. legally.
There are a good deal of heavy themes and graphic descriptions in this book, dealing with all manner of content from rape to suicide. Like Lisa See’s previous works, Shanghai Girls is heartbreaking yet culturally fascinating, featuring sympathetic characters with complex lives.