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Review: Shanghai Girls

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 despiteĀ  his tragedy, he still remains the character that stands out as the kindest, most loving, and down to earth person in the book.

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Review: Little Bee

Recap: For a modern upper-middle class woman living in England, it’s rare that you befriend a teenaged, Nigerian illegal immigrant. But that’s exactly what happens in Little Bee, the story of a very unlikely, but beautiful friendship. The book begins with Little Bee, the Nigerian illegal immigrant, escaping from a detention center in England, where she has lived the past two years. She leaves with a few other illegal immigrants, but Little Bee is the only one who has ties in England. She met a British couple years ago and tracks them down in the hopes they’ll take her in and protect her from deportation.

But this isn’t just a story about Little Bee. It’s also one about Sarah — the woman who Little Bee seeks out. Sarah is a magazine editor, caught up in her own world, which consists of a depressed husband, a wonderful lover, and her 4-year-old son, Charlie.

When Little Bee finds Sarah, Sarah’s husband has just committed suicide. Despite her bittersweet bereavement period, she allows Little Bee to enter her life. They share a secret, a strong tie that is explained as their friendship grows and they become part of each others’ future instead of just their past.

Analysis: This book is gripping. The friendship between the two women is beautiful. But the novel also touches on a number of serious social issues — race, illegal immigration, the Nigerian oil conflict. Reading this, I learned about a number of issues I never paid much attention to.

It raises awareness about how difficult it is for a woman like Little Bee to get a fresh start, but the fact that author Chris Cleave makes her so positive, smart, and brave makes it a particularly exciting read.As the story continues, the reader starts to think maybe Little Bee really can start over in this new, modern country. And as the readers’ hope grows for Little Bee, so does the appreciation for Sarah, who initially seems rather selfish.

What pulls the reader in is the back-and-forth narration between Little Bee and Sarah. They both detail their secret bond in memories and flashbacks, keeping the readers on their toes.

But after such a great read, I was upset to find I truly disliked the ending. It was so ambiguous, I thought I had overlooked a major plot point somewhere. Upon finishing the book, I Googled it to find that I wasn’t the only who felt jipped. In fact, the ending is pretty controversial. After reading about these hopeful women who just want a happy ending, we can’t tell if the ending is happy or not — though it steers toward the “not” direction, and that is disappointing.

MVP: Sarah. Many people didn’t enjoy Sarah’s character, but as a journalist, I did. Initially Sarah is selfish and somewhat unlikable but her character develops throughout the book and reveals her good side. What she does for Little Bee is incredible.

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