Thursday, September 11, 2014

China Dolls by Lisa See

I've read several of See's books and they all remind me a lot of Amy Tan's work.  This one deals with three young Asian girls who meet in San Francisco in 1938.  The city has attracted all sorts of entertainers and want to be entertainers in anticipation of a world's fair to be opening on Treasure Island.

Grace Lee is a 19 year old Chinese girl from Plain City, Ohio.  She runs away in the middle of the night to escape her abusive father who runs the local laundry.  Though Chinese, she has been raised solely amongst "Occidentals" and is very unfamiliar with Chinese customs.  She tries out for a dancing role in the world's fair but is turned down and sent to a nightclub opening just outside Chinatown called the Forbidden City.  Trying to find her way there she runs into Helen Fong, who on the surface appears to be a sheltered girl who has never left her family's compound.  She is accompanied to and from work at the Chinese Telephone Exchange by one of her seven brothers.  When she sees Grace looking for the Forbidden City she skips work to take her there and ends up auditioning as well.  While at auditions, the two girls meet the third main character, Ruby Tom.  She is the most brazen of the three girls, and the most experienced with men.  She is also Japanese, passing as Chinese, which becomes both a point of contention for Helen and her family who suffered under the Japanese invasion of China, and the world at large after the attacks on Pearl Harbour.

The book takes us through the lives of these three girls from when they meet, through the war years and the immediate post war era with a brief epilogue that takes place in 1988.  While the core of the story is the friendship and betrayals of these girls, as well as their emotional, financial and relationship ups and downs and the secrets they harbour, there is also a lot to be learned about the Chinese community in San Francisco at that time, in particular the city's entertainers who go on the "Chop Suey circuit", the interment of the Japanese, the horrible effect the war had on many young men and their families and even what it was like to be gay at the time.

Sometimes the book seemed to go on for a bit too long but in all I was drawn in and wanted to know what had happened.  I did guess some of the secrets but they were not too obvious so I was still anxious to know if I was right.  I definitely recommend this book if you like Amy Tan's work and books of that nature.

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