Pearl and May are two sisters living in Shanghai in the 1930’s. They love their city, the Paris of Asia, and make some extra money by being beautiful girls, models for advertisements and calendars. May is the favorite daughter of the family, according to Pearl, but both sisters are also best friends and can’t imagine life without one another. When they return from a painting session, their father stops them from going to bed and informs them that he has lost everything and that they are contracted to marry two strangers from America. Pearl and May are horrified, but go through with the marriages; they have little choice and no intention to leave Shanghai and follow their husbands. When World War II strikes, however, their entire lives explode and their intentions cease to matter.
I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. At times I think everyone did. I never read Peony in Love, but I was excited when I received the opportunity to read Shanghai Girls. (Thanks so much, Marcia!) To my slight surprise, I wasn’t at all disappointed. I loved this novel. The best parts occurred in Shanghai, but I even liked the journey afterwards.
Seeing the world through Pearl’s eyes was fantastic. I thought that she was an interesting and unusual character with completely understandable motives. I recognized so much of regular sibling relations between her and May, especially at the end when we finally get to hear May’s side of the story. I wonder what the story would have been like if we had heard about it from her and not from Pearl; certainly Pearl’s motives made perfect sense, as did her character changes, but from the other side, things look a little different.
I liked the book a little less after they left Shanghai. The city was glamorous and fascinating to me, as were Pearl and May’s fancy lives. The traumatic experience afterwards was something I could have done without. Their new lives were populated with harsh and unlikeable figures, and Vern’s condition made me uncomfortable. Gradually, I grew to like these new side characters, but never quite so much, and at times I found the plot a little slow. Regardless, when the book was over, I was shocked. I didn’t expect it to end there, and I wanted more. I didn’t quite realize how much until there wasn’t any. To me, that’s a mark of a book I definitely liked. I’m busy crossing my fingers for Lisa See to write a sequel.
As for the prose, I thought Pearl’s voice steady and constant, the book a pleasure to read. She changed with her settings and I could feel the influence each place had on her as well as the places themselves. Her voice grew up as she did. I liked her, too, which was really important here.
Overall, I enjoyed this book a surprising amount. I would honestly recommend it. It is quite different in feel from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but not less worthy because of that. I recommend you check it out.