It is the mid 1930’s in Shanghai and May and Pearl are beautiful, sophisticated, and well educated. When their father gambles away all the family owns, they are on the verge of losing everything. In order to save their home, May and Pearl’s father arranges for his daughters to be married to two brothers who live in Los Angeles and within a few days of making this decision the girls are shocked, horrified… and married.
When the girls went on the boat to be delivered to their new home in the states, they are detained, interrogated, and humiliated for months along with many other women trying to get to the US. It is as thought the lives they once knew had crumbled right before their eyes. When May discovers she is pregnant the girls make a pact that no one can ever EVER know.
Once in the states they find that life is not as they had been told, their father in law is not the rich man that he portrayed himself to be in Shanghai. Instead he is close to poverty, relying on what his sons, and now his daughter in laws can provide him by working and giving him the money. Together May and Pearl learn to survive in a new world, in new ways.
My first experience with Lisa See was Snowflower and The Secret Fan. I devoured that book and knew I wanted to read more of her work. That time has come with Shanghai Girls which has turned out not only to be an incredible fiction experience.
What at first I thought was going to be mainly about their new lives and how they adjusted to this new life (much like A Buddha In The Attic), I was surprised to find that Lisa See winds a much deeper story within the story and when I caught on to what she was doing, I was really thrilled. As this book is about two sisters from Shanghai and their lives, it is really about the sisters Pearl and May. While Pearl narrates what she sees and how things are, you get a very strong feeling of who they are. Here in lies the beauty of Lisa See’s writing.
I also learned a few things I did not know before.
Have you ever heard of paper sons? It really is a fascinating (and sad) topic of how during the Chinese Exclusion Act (read more about that here on Wikepedia) immigration to the US was restricted. That being told, false papers were being drawn up where US citizens would claim children and even adults as their own and these papers could create access to the states for these people. The people would then live with the American families under their US family name to ensure they were not found out, forever giving up their true ancestors and name. Thus the term paper sons came to be as they were truly only sons on paper.
The experience the girls, May and Pearl have on the boat the states is heart wrenching. Not only as I listened to this on audio, but also as I suspect this is actually what happened when women traveled alone to get to the states on these boats. They were raped repeatedly. They were beaten and starved.
One moment that sticks out for me is later in the book May refers to some women she sees as FOB’s. I kept wondering if she was swearing at them, only soon to figure out that FOB meant “fresh off the boat”. LOL…. I am going to use that some day in a sentence…. 😀
Shanghai Girls is a look into two girls lives from their youth as beautiful girls to their experiences lives, marriages, and more in the United States. Lisa See does a wonderful job of making this book feel more fact than fiction.
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Borrowed from my local library