Recap: In Shanghai — “The Paris of China” — in the 1930’s, Pearl and May Chin are privileged, beautiful, rich girls, raised in a life of glamour, parties, and all things wonderful. But when their father informs them that he’s broke and has made a deal to marry them off to make up for his losses, their world changes entirely. Add to that the beginning of World War II and the Japanese bombing of Shanghai, and you’ve got the makings of a deeply impactful story.
Shanghai Girls follows Pearl and May as they marry the men their father has selected — Sam and Vern. It follows them as they journey overseas to America — and get stuck on Angel Island for months before they’re allowed into the country. And it follows them as they begin to build a life based on the American dream — a dream they never knew they had before.
Analysis: Shanghai Girls is divided into three parts: Fate, Fortune, and Destiny. Typically, dividing a book into portions doesn’t have much of an effect on me or the way I read it. But in the case of Shanghai Girls, it works. The way Pearl’s and May’s lives unfold is drastic. They face so many ups and downs that the parts helps to separate them and keep track of everything.
The first part of the book is difficult to get through. It’s graphic, depressing, and — no, heartwrenching. Because the young girls face so much hardship, I found I needed to know what happened. I longed to learn how they got out of their mess, if they got out. Shanghai Girls deals with many social issues of the time — war, Communism, illegal immigration, and civil rights. Reading it makes clear how much harder things were for the Chinese than most other U.S. immigrants.
The tale of Pearl and May is gripping. But it’s also a story of love — love between two sisters who only have each left in a crazy world. Pearl and May are the only truly stagnant parts of each other’s lives, and reading about their deep understanding and respect for each other is as captivating as the story itself.
MVP: Pearl’s husband, Sam. Each character in this novel has some kind of overwhelming flaw. But not Sam. Though he initially appears as the “evil” husband who Pearl is forced to marry, he becomes the perfect husband. And despite his tragedy, he still remains the character that stands out as the kindest, most loving, and down to earth person in the book.