Even though both books are in a series meant to be read sequentially, they are both quite different. Shanghai Girls deals with the experience of immigrants coming to America, through Angel Island, working in a Chinatown, and the racism they faced. Dreams of Joy takes place mainly in China, dealing with one of the darkest parts of Chinese history – The Great Chinese Famine. The books don’t gloss over the darker parts of history, and I will warn people that Pearl faces a serious sexual assault over the course of the first book. Both books however have a linking theme of being a fish out of water. Pearl and May obviously take some adjusting to life in America, and in Dreams of Joy, Pearl returns to a China she doesn’t recognise, and Joy is there for her first time.
When reviewing a book you love, it can be harder to remain objective during a review. However, it does mean I can give these books my highest recommendation, with complete sincerity. I like the genre of books I call stories about immigration. I’ve also heard it called “immigrant fiction” but I don’t like the term, and it can also apply to biographies, so not always fictional stories. I think I can relate to the general feeling of being a fish out of water, and I enjoy learning about other countries. Obviously, different people may identify with other things, for example people with experiences of immigration may find they identify with those parts.
The other big theme of these books is one of contrasts. Between the rich and poor in Shanghai, between China and the USA, between Joy’s life in America and on a Chinese commune. Even between characters, the differences between Pearl and May, or Pearl and Joy. Although both sisters are not as different as Pearl makes them out to be. May has obviously read more than just “gossip columns” and her circumstances would mean she didn’t pick up Sze Yup as much as Pearl, but it makes her no less intelligent. As she mentions in the latter part of Shanghai Girls, she would have loved to have the option to go to college, but her parents never allowed her to like they did with Pearl. Also, since May didn’t speak Sze Yup, Pearl could have conversations with her parents that May didn’t understand. This left May feeling like the unfavourite as much as Pearl did, making an interesting family dynamic with them both feeling like their parents preferred the other. I feel like people with sibling might relate to this more, but as an only child, it is an alien sensation to me.
There are, of course, things I feel these books do especially well. Showing the paranoia surrounding communism in the US in the 20th Century, in a way that is relevant in our current day. Their life in Shanghai, class divides and changing values abound. Showing the relationship between Pearl and Sam growing from a marriage of convenience to actual love. The evocation of a completely different time and place. Lisa See describes places and times with such attention to detail that you feel you are actually there. 1930’s Shanghai, Angel Island Immigration Centre, Los Angeles Chinatown of the 1940’s, Communist China are all bought to life wonderfully within these books. She also describes the food so well I could almost taste it, even when the food is not necessarily appetising.
It’s harder for me to pick out specific flaws in these books. I spent most of Dreams of Joy wondering about some of Joy’s decisions. She is often naïve to the point of stupidity. Dreams of Joy, in general, can seem bleak in its later parts, endless descriptions of nothing but a whole village starving. We also only get to experience one of the sister’s point of view, Pearl’s, and there are some events I felt could be better told from May’s eyes. I feel like we would have got a better sense of the similarities and differences between the two sisters, and May’s thoughts on certain events, especially pertaining to her decisions. The book also does that somewhat-odd thing of dropping Chinese words in paragraphs that are meant to be translated Chinese. I know it is an annoyance for some people, but personally I don’t mind it and I enjoy learning new words from their use in stories. Some of the language is outdated by our standards, but of course it was what was in use at the time.
I recommend these books for: anyone with interest in the experiences of immigrants in America, anyone interested in Chinese culture, anyone who grew up with sisters, and everyone else. These are some of my favourite books ever, and I feel these sorts of stories are important in our world, now more than ever.
As a last note, I have to mention that I love the covers of these books, and they remind me of how Pearl and May's beautiful-girl posters might look.