I like books on Asian culture. One of my favorite authors is Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club , The Hundred Secret Senses , and The Bonesetters Daughter . So when I went into Barnes and Nobles one day while waiting for a friend and I saw Shanghai Girls, I was instantly intrigued and I read the first chapter while I waited.
Shanghai Girls is about two sisters, Pearl and May, who live in Shanghai, China in the mid 1930s. They come from a wealthy family and are well educated. They work as models for Chinese calenders, or calendar girls as they call it, and have tons of modern Shanghai clothes. The last thing they are thinking about is getting married, let alone an arranged marriage. However, they find out that their father put the family in debt due to his gambling habit and, as a means to avoid losing everything, he sells Pearl and May to a Chinese-American man to be married to his American sons who live in California. Pearl and May refuse to go until Japanese bombs and soldiers invade their town. So they travel to California to be with their husbands. There they have to adapt to living with strangers in a strange land and keeping a secret that changes their lives forever.
The main theme of this novel is sisterhood. Pearl and May are very close but they couldn't be more different. Pearl is the oldest and is viewed as the "uglier" of the two. In fact, the first line of the book is Pearl's father criticizing Pearl's looks. What Pearl definitely is is intelligent, but in 1930s Confucius China "an intelligent woman is a worthless woman". And as the oldest, she is expected to look after and protect her sister May. May is known primarily for her beauty, charm and cleverness. She knows the right look and the right things to say to get what she wants.
As much as Pearl and May love and value each other, like all sisters, they also know how to get on each others nerves. Pearl is secretly jealous of May because she seems to get away with less responsibility and tends to have more fun than Pearl. Pearl resents the fact that she always has to be the sensible one, the one that always does the right thing, the one who is always protecting and saving May. May's impulsiveness angers Pearl; she constantly wishes that May would stop and think before she does things. May, on the other hand, is jealous of Pearl because people tend to trust Pearl more. Anything vain or shallow, they look to May, but anything of importance is put on Pearl. May feels that Pearl is valued more because of her intelligence. Pearl's sensibility and cautiousness drives May crazy and May wishes that Pearl would loosen up and enjoy life a little more. However, throughout the book, all of these feelings are harbored in secret. On the surface, Pearl and May are as close as two sisters can be, they're each others best friend and they mainly express love and respect for each other because in the end they're all they have of their home.
Another theme of this novel is culture and immigration. Pearl and May experience culture shock and prejudice when they come to America. Moving from a wealthy home in Shanghai to a poor apartment in California show Pearl and May how much they took their life in Shanghai for granted. They are forced to do housework, unable to go out alone, and any money they make goes into the household pot instead of in their pockets. With American at war, Pearl, May and their new family experience prejudice and live in constant fear that they will be deported back to China. Pearl and May also learn that not only was their view of America different than what it actually is, but America's view of life in China and Chinese culture is skewed as well. But as China turns Communist and Pearl and May learn how much Shanghai has changed in their absence, they know that they are better off where they are than back home in Shanghai.
I really liked this book, except for the ending. It ended in kind of a cliff hanger and I wasn't at all happy with it because everything had just come to a head. However, I just found out that the sequel, Dreams of Joy, is coming out in May. So I guess we'll have to wait until then to find out how everything ends.