This author, who also penned the best-selling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, gives us another book on sisterhood but this time in a more modern context. While a fascinating glimpse into the life of Chinese women in the mid-20th century United States, and of the political turmoil in China during this same period, this novel somehow lacked the emotional depth of Snow Flower. The fact that I found neither of the sisters to be truly appealing was another factor that left me less involved in the story. Nonetheless, I found this book worth the read.
Pearl and May are the spoiled beautiful daughters of a wealthy Shanghai merchant in 1937. Both make pocket-money by posing for calendar painters, unaware that their father’s gambling addiction has grown out of control. Early in the novel, we are introduced to the girls’ carefree existence in detail, only to have it shattered when they learn of their father’s unpayable debt to the Green Triad and he sells them as brides to two brothers living in Los Angeles as a way out of his debt. The girls attempt to escape their fate, but are trapped when the Japanese invade Shanghai, and they go through horrific experiences—including the gang-rape of both their mother and of Pearl—before they are able to escape to the U.S., and to their husbands. Along the way, a child is born which changes both their lives forever.
Once again, See portrays Chinese women at the mercy of their traditionalist families, husbands, or husbands’ families, with little opportunity to forge an independent and satisfying existence. Pearl was “bought” as a servant and broodmare, and while harboring plans to escape her bondage, never does and eventually adopts the family as her own. May, whose “husband” is a sickly, brain-damaged 14-year boy, manages to find escape through taking a growing number of small but well-paid stereotyped roles as a Chinese peasant or helpless maiden in a series of Hollywood’s wartime films. She spends luxuriously on both herself and her family, but never engages with her new family, nor with reality. May, in essence, remains the frivolous teenager of her Shanghai days, with a strong survival instinct and fearing only the encroachment of age, while Pearl matures and adapts, even as she grows increasingly fearful about her and her family’s lack of security as the Communist revolution in China triggers a violent anti-Communist/anti-Chinese response inside the US.
Through it all, the sisters and their shared history have an emotional bond that keeps them together, but that bond becomes increasingly frayed once they reach the U.S. and comes near to rupturing altogether with the outbreak of tragedy in the family. The author’s conclusion, perhaps paving the way for a sequel or perhaps not knowing how to end her story, was provocative but ultimately, for me, unsatisfying.