Monday, June 8, 2009

Shanghai Girls

My friend Sarah sent me a copy of Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan a few years ago, and like most other people who read, I enjoyed it. So when I was offered a copy of Shanghai Girls from the ARC shelf at my local college bookstore, I remembered the first one I'd read by her and decided to give it a try. When I finally got to it (spurred by a positive review at Devourer of Books), it was an absorbing read, and because so much of it is set in the U.S. (Los Angeles), some of the story of the Chinese assimilating in the U.S. after WWII reminds me of the assimilation story of Amy Tan's Chinese characters in San Francisco (The Joy Luck Club.) The book is out now, and I would recommend it mostly to female readers.

A main theme of this novel is the importance of womens' stories:
"So often we're told that women's stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter, and sister? A baby's illness, the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty, or even in the best of days are conswidered small and insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who wage battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. We're told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men."

Although early on, a scene in the novel in which the first-person narrator, Pearl, suffers unimaginable agonies in a time of war seemed to be steering the novel on an all-too-predictable course, the way in which she endures becomes more interesting than I would have expected, culminating with her realization that her homesickness for her life as a "Shanghai Girl" has kept her from enjoying her life in America:
"I regret the years of homesickness and loneliness I've felt for Shanghai: the way I turned it into so many golden-hued remembrances of people, places, and food that...no longer exist and will never again exist. I berate myself: How could I not have seen what was right in front of me all these years? How could I not have sucked in all the sweetness instead of pining for memories that were only ashes and dust?"

That line of reasoning certainly resonates with me, and so rather than someone who is teaching me what it's like to be a foreigner in a strange land, Pearl is teaching me how to look at my own life, which is really quite a good trick, especially for one who spends so much of her life characterizing herself as the "beautiful girl" that she was in her youth in Shanghai. The way she tells her story, especially the parts where she defines herself in opposition to her even more beautiful sister, May, makes me think of what Jubal Harshaw says about a Rodin sculpture in Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land:
"Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master--and that is what Auguste Rodin was--can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is...and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be...and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart...no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn't matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired--but it does to them."

Pearl's story is the story of two sisters who were meant to be admired for their looks, and who learn how to look out of various kinds of prisons to see where they can go next, propelled like rockets by the spirits of the girls they once were still burning inside.

4 comments:

Clara said...

What a beautifully written review! I appreciate your thoughtfulness and insights. I'm going to forward it to my sister right now...
Thanks,
Clara Sturak
(Lisa See's little sister)

Cschu said...

This was an especially lovely review. It not only makes me want to read the book, it also stands on its own as a thought-provoking short piece.

Nicole said...

I have this and I am looking forward to reading it. I love the way she concentrates on women's voices in societies that didn't make a place for women. I would also recommend Peony in Love.

Jeanne said...

Clara, I'm glad you saw this review, and thanks for letting me know you liked it!
Cschu and Nicole, I think you'll enjoy reading this one. And Nicole, I'm going to look for Peony in Love next.