by Lisa See
Three young women become best friends after meeting by chance at auditions for the Forbidden City nightclub. Pretty Grace is an unparalleled dancer who fled an abusive father to make it big in San Francisco. Dutiful Helen is the daughter of a conservative, well-to-do Chinese family, and her traditional father would be outraged at her defiant decision to work at a nightclub if the wages weren’t so much greater than what Helen can earn elsewhere. The most flamboyant member of the trio, Ruby Tom, wants to be famous, and she doesn’t care what she has to do to make it happen. Together, the three Chinese-American girls are ready to rise to the top, but in the shocking aftermath of Pearl Harbor a shocking betrayal threatens to tear the bonds of friendship to shreds.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another work of fiction that deals with Asian-Americans in show business in the 1930s and 1940s. Lisa See clearly did a lot of research as she worked on this novel, and I loved reading about the “chop suey circuit” where Asian-American acts performed vaudeville, comedy routines, and danced for their largely-white audiences. It’s such a fascinating period anyway, and by placing her three women right in the thick of things See creates an energetic story full of drama and heart.
The story jumps from one girl to the next, and the reader soon becomes used to the three distinct voices. Likely, everyone will favor one girl over the others, or find one character a bit more grating. For me, Helen proved difficult to handle in large doses. She has a habit of peppering her speech with Chinese proverbs, which makes her sound pompous and holier-than-thou when she talks to her “Americanized” friends. There’s a melancholy darkness that clings to her, and makes her seem stodgy next to her ambitious and spirited friends. By the end of the story, Helen reveals all and the reader can understand why she acts the way that she does, but while I could sympathize with her I still couldn’t like her.
While I don’t think this is See’s strongest work (Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy work together as one masterful novel in scope and emotion) it’s a great story that really showcases the American dream as it was perceived during this period of history, and the difficulties many minorities faced as they pursued it.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Discussion Question: Do you read every book in a series?
2012: Mummies in Nineteenth Century America by S. J. Wolfe
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while…
2010: Maiden, Matron, Crone edited by Kerri Huges & Martin H. Greenberg
2009: An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
2008: The Glimmer Palace by Beatrice Colin