Finished: Apr. 24, 2011
First Published: May 26, 2009
Publisher: Random House
Genre: historical fiction, China, WWII, immigrants
"Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks." my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him.
Acquired: Received a review copy from Random House Canada.
Reason for Reading: I absolutely love Chinese historical fiction that takes place during the reign of the last empress through Mao's Cultural Revolution. I'll read other Chinese time periods but this era is absolutely fascinating to me. This book is perfectly situated starting with the Japanese invasion of China and ending with the first years of Mao's rule.
This is a generational drama which tells the story of one family and then two families as they become connected by marriage. The focus is on two sisters three years apart in age who, though very different in looks and temperaments are very close, and through all the hardships, tragedies, horrors and sufferings never part from each other. They are sold off as wives to a rich man's sons to pay off their father's gambling debts which have left his family destitute. However, with the invasion of the Japanese the girl's never make it to the ship to America with their new husbands. Instead they and their mother are left to escape Shanghai on their own and seek out a place where they may be safe from the rapacious Japanese. This part of the story is my favourite as it takes place during my favourite time period, the war and the Japanese atrocities in China at the time. The author has written a compelling and terrifying story for these three women, which many others will have experienced similar stories in real life at this time. The closeness between the sisters is bonded and solidified here and they realize the strength and love of their old-fashioned foot bound mother they never knew existed.
As the story moves to America there are many secrets, lies and betrayals hidden in almost every member of the new family's life: Pearl and May, their husbands, their father-in-law (Old Man Louis) and mother-in-law (Yen Yen) and well as the three Uncles. All living together, except the uncles, who live nearby, it would seem hard for so many secrets to exist but they have become the essence of life. Pearl and May have different experiences now and different routes to follows and while envy and jealousy creep up on both parts they never loose their strong ties that bind them together.
A wonderful story, full of tragedy and both bittersweet and familial love. Lisa See's writing is reminiscent of Amy Tan but her topic and sense for tragedy are more in line with Pearl Buck's work. Since I've read all of the latter authors' works I think I've found myself an author to fill their place in my reading. A sequel to this book is available this month, Dreams of Joy, but I think I will go back and read some of See's earlier works first.