Published May 31st 2011 by Random House.
There’s a strange story about how I got this book. I was browsing a message board for something and on the bottom right side of the page, there was something like, “Take this survey and get a free book!” I was skeptical but a free book is a free book so I took the survey. I was expecting the freebie to be an ebook or some random self-help or business book but I was surprised that they gave the respondent choices. More surprising were the titles of the books. I remember seeing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that Lauren Conrad book, and one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books. And then there’s this one. I picked this one from the bunch, filled out the form, and totally forgot about it. I don’t even remember how long it took from the time I took the survey until I got this book in the mail. My mom just placed it on my bed one afternoon; she’s used to me getting free books in the mail anyway.
I have to say, this is one of those “judge a book by its cover” choices. While I am familiar with Lisa See, I have not read any of her work. I’ve seen the movie version of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan though. I was drawn to the Chinese-style drawing on the cover and I was intrigued by the blurb at the back. I had no idea it was a sequel to another book so I went into this blindly, right where the first book, Shanghai Girls, left off.
Joy is at a crossroads in her life. She’s 19, in college in Chicago, living with her extended family in Los Angeles Chinatown. She just found out that the woman she called ‘mom’ was really her aunt, and ‘auntie May’ was her biological mother. The man she called ‘dad’ recently took his life while his invalid uncle lay dying. So full of idealism, she flees to China to find her biological father and fight for what she believes in.
China in the 1950s was ruled by Mao Zedong and his “Great Leap Forward”. Communism blinded everyone, made them think that doing silly things such as kill sparrows and melt their cookware to make machinery will make China “the best country in the world”. Joy finds herself with her birth father, Z.G. Li shortly after arriving to the country, losing her identity in the process. Pearl Chin, the woman who raised her, followed Joy to China in hopes of finding her and bringing her back to the USA no matter the cost.
Being raised in Los Angeles, Joy experiences culture shock which is quickly remedied by falling in love with a country boy. She follows her heart and finds herself disappointed that what she believed about China was far from the truth. Meanwhile, Pearl does some soul-searching of her own. In her path leading to Joy, she finds bits and pieces of her old life and ties off the many loose ends that she left when she and her family fled to the US.
This is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. I was very impressed by the writing, how well-researched it is, and how sincere it felt. It was so compelling that twice I almost missed my stop at the train. I could not put it down. Along the lines of Haruki Murakami and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, Lisa See is very good at painting a picture so realistic yet magical at the same time. You can feel Pearl’s pain and Joy’s determination, I rooted for the both of them throughout the entire book.
It evoked a rather strong reaction from me. I was outraged, sad, even shocked at some of the things that happened in the book. I felt sorry for Joy. But at the same time, I wanted to say “that’s what you get for not listening to your mom”. We all had that defiant and idealistic phase in our lives so in a way, I understood where she was coming from. I just did not agree on how far she took it. I wanted Pearl to succeed. Her love for Joy and for those around her was so strong that you can hold it in your hand. She loved everyone and she deserved all the love in the world. I preferred Pearl’s parts in the book a bit more than Joy’s though. Those had more compelling and likeable characters while Joy was surrounded by people who I wanted to go away.
Also, it was a nice touch that a part of this book happened in Los Angeles Chinatown. One of the trains I take has a stop at LA Chinatown. During the time I was reading this, it made my day a bit brighter every time my train stops there.
I don’t see it as a “coming-of-age” novel exactly. Instead, it is a journey through life. Parallel journeys by Pearl and Joy, mother-daughter, through a country they both longed for.
Recommendation: A very good look into the Asian culture. Beautiful visuals and excellent writing transports the reader to old China.
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