April 1, 2014

Pointing Out Flaws in Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

By now, everyone has read at least one review of Shanghai Girls so I am sure most of you know what it is about.  Now I am going to tell you that while I thought it was an okay read, I found myself disappointed by Lisa See's lack of development of a story and of characters with so much potential.

The book is called Shanghai Girls, and is supposedly about two sisters, Pearl and May, but it is really only about one sister - Pearl- and the story is told through Pearl's limited scope.   We view the lives of Pearl and May and their parents through Pearl's observations and reactions.  We view the double wedding through her eyes.  We view her trip to America and living with the in-laws through her eyes.  We see everything via Pearl.  In fact, we never really get to know May.  All we know about May is that Pearl loves her but thinks she is naive, wild, inconsiderate, selfish, and irresponsible.  If this is how it had been set up, I would not have seen it as a flaw, but it is summarized about being both of their stories.  While their stories are often the same, they are not always and the reader is left with wondering what May has to do with the story at all sometimes.

I really liked the plot and everything that happens to the sisters and to their families both in China and in America.  I thought there were a few good twists. There were times when I literally felt like Lisa See was killing me with the feels.   I felt that the historical background of the time was brought to life. I thought there were some well-developed characters, though, at the same time, I felt we were missing out on knowing more about them for one significant reason: Pearl was a completely static character.

When I say static character I am referring to the fact she doesn't go through any significant changes throughout the course of the book.  Crazy stuff happens to her over and over (which were always great parts to read) but I was so disappointed in how she would barely react.  I understand that at the time Chinese were brought up to be quite stoic, but since the story is told from her point of view I would've thought we'd at least get some internal dialogue about it.  Over and over I was left wondering why I should care about her.  

In truth, the only reason I did care about her was because she experienced something so tragic, something that I related to on a far lesser scale, and I wanted to see where Lisa See would take it and how she would develop Pearl's character with it.  But Pearl doesn't develop.  Not really. Maybe towards the very end she does somewhat, but only because someone forces her to, and it was not drastic enough for me to feel satisfied.  She plays the victim card over and over and over again.  It makes me want to slap her.  She is supposedly a Dragon in the Chinese Zodiac.  Can she endure hard times?  Oh, without question.  Does she fight fate?  Hell no.  She surrenders and plays victim and has stuff happen to her instead of making stuff happen.  

On top of that, the ending was clearly set up for a sequel.  I have said it before and I will say it again: I cannot stand that.  This one was less of a cliffhanger than some I have read and can stand pretty well on its own two feet, even if it did set itself up for another book.  So there's that at least. Oh, and May's "big reveal" was so obvious the whole story and I can't quite figure out why See thought it was like dropping a bomb on the reader.

I don't think I would have made it all the way through this book if it had not been on audio.  (Side Note: Janet Song did a great job narrating it.) There was some definite info-dumping and a lot of listing out of things that had happened.  Lists, people.  Bor-ing. The storytelling was not consistent throughout the book- sometimes it was the info-dumping lists of events or character backgrounds, and other times it was in the moment and exciting, and those latter times were when I enjoyed the story.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but it is definitely not a page turner.   Both this book and the Snow Flower and the Secret Fan were just mediocre reads to me.  I think Lisa See would have to change her storytelling format to get me to read anything else by her, and I'm afraid that won't happen since others love her so much.  

"As I speak, I’m reminded of the old saying that diseases go in through the mouth, disasters come out of the mouth, meaning that words can be like bombs themselves.”   

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