Book reviews: Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy

Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

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Shanghai Girls, paraphrased from Goodreads


In 1937, Shanghai is the Paris of Asia, a city of great wealth and glamour, the home of millionaires and beggars, gangsters and gamblers, patriots and revolutionaries, artists and warlords. Thanks to the financial security and material comforts provided by their father’s prosperous rickshaw business, twenty-one-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister, May, are having the time of their lives. Though both sisters wave off authority and tradition, they couldn’t be more different: Pearl is a Dragon sign, strong and stubborn, while May is a true Sheep, adorable and placid. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree … until the day their father tells them that he has gambled away their wealth and that in order to repay his debts he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from California to find Chinese brides.

As Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, one that will take them through the Chinese countryside, in and out of the clutch of brutal soldiers, and across the Pacific to the shores of America. In Los Angeles they begin a fresh chapter, trying to find love with the strangers they have married, brushing against the seduction of Hollywood, and striving to embrace American life even as they fight against discrimination, brave Communist witch hunts, and find themselves hemmed in by Chinatown’s old ways and rules.

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Shanghai Girls: ★ (4.5 stars, rounded up to five)
Dreams of Joy: ★★★★★ (4.5 stars, rounded up to five)

First of all, I need y’all to yell at me for not reading anything by Lisa See for this long. She’s amazing. These are probably the best historical fiction books I’ve read in a long time.

Shanghai Girls

May and Pearl have one of the best dynamics I’ve read in a while. They have one of the most realistic, heartwarming sister relationships I’ve ever read. They’re also both such great characters and I loved them. The rest of the characters and the character dynamics are super interesting as well.

One of my favourite parts of this book (both books, really) was learning about Chinese culture. I’ve always been interested in the Chinese culture, and I really loved how much it was explored in this book, in so many different ways. I loved reading about the traditional Chinese family structure and how it complicated things. I liked how it was emphasized in all aspects of the character’s lives.

This book is so heart wrenching. Like holy fuck, I cried so much. It was so sad. It gets better for them, but it was so sad. And I loved it because it was also so realistic. I think ultimately it’s a story about two things: identity and family, and how they interact. I loved it and thought it was brilliant.

Dreams of Joy

This one, as the title suggests, mainly focuses on Joy, May/Pearl’s daughter. Joy is such a great character. She’s not necessarily likeable; she’s gullible and stupid and headstrong and stubborn and gets sucked into propaganda and doesn’t see what’s in front of her or listen to people older and smarter than her. But she’s so realistic. She was such a fun, if frustrating, character to read.

I found this one requiring a bit more of a suspension of belief than the first one. But, if you can look past certain plot points, it’s really enjoyable.

Again, I loved the story. It was equally as heartbreaking and fascinating as the first one. This one largely takes place in China, and we get both perspectives of China during Mao’s time: the wealth experienced in the cities and the horrible poverty experienced in rural towns. It was so horrible, it was hard to read at some points. But I think it’s really important to remember, and also really interesting.

I also loved how everyone got a happy ending. I know it’s cheesy, but it felt right. There was enough sadness and enough horrifying things happened to the characters that they deserved the happy ending they got, and I was really happy about it.

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So clearly I loved both these books. If you like historical fiction and are interested in Chinese culture, I highly recommend these. Even if you don’t like either of those things, I still highly recommend them because they’re just beautifully written books with amazing characters. These definitely will not be the last Lisa See books I read, and I’m so excited to read more.

Have you read these books? Have you read anything by Lisa See? Have I convinced you to yet? Let me know!

Thanks for reading! xx

12 thoughts on “Book reviews: Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy

  1. I haven’t read anything by Lisa See yet, but I saw a display of her books in my local bookstore the other day and decided I want to read something of hers. I just haven’t decided which book yet.

    Liked by 1 person

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