Monday, November 16, 2009

Book Group Alert - Shanghai Girls

I'm just finishing up listening to Lisa See's latest novel and, though I seldom say this, I suspect that this one might be better read than listened to. It's such a multi-layered book and can be analyzed in so many ways but on the surface it's a tale of two sisters, Pearl and May, who are as different as night and day - aren't we always?
Even though Pearl is the eldest, the strongest emotionally, the one who suffers greatly throughout the book to hold her small family together and take care of her younger sister as she promised her dying mother she would, the reader's voice has a complaining tenor to it that doesn't do justice to Pearl's strength but somehow makes her seem hard and less than sympathetic.
I'm on the last disc and have a terrible feeling that a bomb is about to drop, literally, not figuratively, that will split the two sisters forever. I've had a sneaking suspicion for quite a while that I might know the father of May's illegitimate child, born while the sisters were incarcerated on Angel Island, a holding place on the west coast for immigrants trying to enter the U.S. much like Ellis Island was on the East coast. Speaking of Angel Island, how many of you ever learned about this in history class? I went to great public schools but I sure did not! Ellis island for white Europeans? Lots of info? Asian immigrants at Angel Island? Not so much. Do you ever think about how much we can learn by reading fiction? The possibilities are endless. Read more here:

This is not an easy book to read, fair warning, there are very few bright moments. Those familiar with her very popular book group fave Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will not be surprised. Though I led that book discussion I can't say that it was one of my personal choices and I passed up the sequel, Peony in Love. I am drawn to many unfamiliar cultures but, for some unfathomable reason, the Asian culture has never been one of them. On the other hand I feel that I owe it to myself and to history to try to understand and learn about our country's dismal history with the Japanese and Chinese immigrants whose futures in the United States were whimsically tied to the "fortunes of war."

In fact, as I read, I realized that Ms. See may have drawn the two sisters to represent the two cultures, with Pearl the sensible, rule following, hard working woman who bears the burdens of an arranged marriage, the raising of her sister's daughter as her own, and subjugating her own desires for the common good as a symbol of the old world values and the self-centered, ambitious May as the symbol of the new American culture.The author may not have had this in mind but, if you decide to read this book or use it for discussion, you can see for yourself what I mean and run with it.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I tend to gravitate to difficult fiction that upsets, angers, or moves me in a deep and profound way. It's why I read. That's not to say that I don't love to take a break and just get into something that's pure fun. Having read and reviewed Hallie Ephron's delightful Bibliophile's Devotional, I decided to peek into one of her suspense novels, Never Tell a Lie. I'm not far enough along to write about it yet but the premise is great fun, an old New England home with secrets hidden in the attic, a mysterious woman with her own secrets who knows a bit too much about Ivy and David and the Victorian they're renovating. It's so great to lighten up and just enjoy. I'll keep you posted.

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