Review: Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy [5★]

Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy may be distinct publications, but they are two inseparable parts of the same story. They must be read together (and reviewed together), because without one, the other is far from whole. 

Shanghai Girls tells the story of two sisters, Pearl and May Chin, as they escape the Japanese invasion of China and immigrate to America. Despite harboring suppressed resentments and hidden jealousies, the two girls must rely on each other to survive the loss of their home and their family while living in a country that despises them, and to raise a daughter together. 

Decades later when their daughter Joy is grown, all the secrets and lies that have kept them together and safe will come unraveled and threaten everything that both sisters love. 

The second novel, Dreams of Joy shifts the attention from sisters Pearl and May, and to the daughter they shared. Joy, filled with love for China yet blinded by the idealism of America, travels to Communist China to serve Chairman Mao and his vision for a better China. Her mother and aunt, knowing the dangers that await her there, follow her, hoping to rescue her before it’s too late. 


See’s stories are engrossing and compelling, set as they are within such horrifying historical events. The generational story in the two novels captures the horrors of the Japanese invasion, the humiliations of immigrant life in America, and the terrifying madness of Mao’s Red China. Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy revealed to me just how little I knew about each of those things, while beginning to remedy my ignorance in a way that captivated and moved me. 

While providing this keen insight into history, Lisa See also writes movingly of the relationships between sisters and between daughters and mothers. Pearl and May are terribly close, out of habit and necessity, and yet their relationship is tense with frustration and jealousy. 

Their relationships with their daughter are also full of pain, as Joy rejects their loving advice and sets out on reckless and dangerous paths. Their mother-daughter story is a tragic testament to the very real relationships between parents and children. No matter how much a parent sacrifices for their child and loves their child, that child will never understand all of it… seems to always find some cause for bitterness or resentment. And no matter how much a child grows and learns, they may never be able to make their parents see things differently, may never be seen as wise for choosing a different path.

See’s novels contain so much anguish and so much pain, both in historical settings and in relational turmoil, yet they are not without the hope and redemption of love. Pearl and May’s love for each other weathers all of their conflict and brings them through a multitude of troubles. Their search for their daughter is rewarded, and they are able to come to a place of understanding with each other. 

Lisa See’s powerful duo of novels is a masterful ode to the power of love and a mother’s determination to fight for her child. Her historical fiction brings incredible insight to a hidden part of history, and is absolutely worth the read.

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