Shanghai Girls is a novel by Lisa See published in the year 2009. The story explores complex relationship between two sister who are very close with each other. It explores love, hate, jealousy between them. The theme is how the two sisters will break each other’s heart and will also be there when no one else is there.
Pearl and May are two sisters who have the world at their feet. Shanghai (1937) which was considered as the Paris of Asia is in love with these two sisters. They are semi wealthy poster girls /models for various items. Their photographer or painter is Z.G.Li. Models by day and party (enjoy drinks with friends at bar) at night. Pearl who has gone to college is born in the year of Dragon, she is portrayed as strong and stubborn. May born in the year of sheep is placid and adorable and gets her way. Pearl has always been jealous pf May who is beautiful and charming.
The first part of the novel explores the war-torn Shanghai. Their father who owns rikshaw business tells them that he lost all the money in gambling and must pay off his debt. He clears his debt by selling his daughters in hand of marriage to Chinese American man who wants Chinese bride for his sons. It is time of second Sino-Japanese war. They get married and are provided with documents to travel to USA. However, the girls purposely miss the boat on the day their father in law asked them to. In few days’ time Shanghai is bombarded and the second part of the story begins with their attempt to flee to USA.
I loved each character from the novel. The novel is based on many factual historical timelines with the war, Angel Island, second world war etc. The two sisters seem different however they are closer than anything and anyone. Their love for each other surpasses any form of love but their jealousy with Joy (Pearls daughter), everyday life is something to read. Both sisters envy each other and would do anything to help each other. The sisters share a long journey together from Shanghai to America. They have kept secrets, pain and suffering that no one can know over the years. It is interesting how it seems like Pearl is the one who sacrificed and has May is free but when you read the whole novel May has gone through a lot. Being Chinese Americans immigrants in USA is difficult.
I also loved how culture played important part in the novel. Vern (Mays Husband) is the young one who was born in USA and is living a secure life but Sam (Pearls Husband) being a paper son want to get rid of his debt and forget his past and will do anything to make sure his daughter does not have to go through what he did. It depicts how a war can harm people in general, patriarchy, power and money play important role.
I am in awe with this novel and I will surely read Dreams of Joy which a sequel to this. Also, because the book ends, and you have questions as to what happened after that. I want to read this novel form May’s perspective. Her love and many sacrifices for her sister and how she dealt with her own suffering. She seems like a character who led a good life, but she has struggled to reach where she is. She is a strong character itself. Since the novel is said through Pearls narrative I feel that there is so much to share form May’s side of the story. I felt bad for each and every character and yet somehow felt satisfied with the novel.