Shanghai Girls is one of those books that I added to my to-read list on Goodreads and then promptly forgot about it (probably because I have 300+ books on my to-read list. I work at a library ok? New books are always being added to the shelves and older books pass through my hands and I just can't help myself xD). Anyways, lucky for me, my older sister bought a copy of the book at a used book sale and told me that I should definitely read it. She dropped it off at my apartment and then proceeded to ask me everyday if I had started reading it yet. I had a stack of books from the library that I was trying to finish so it took me two weeks to get to it, but once I started reading, I flew through the book.
Shanghai Girls follows the story of Pearl and her younger sister May, two women living in 1930's Shanghai. As the daughters of the owner of a rickshaw business, they consider themselves to be very Westernized and well off. Ignoring the threats of an impending Japanese invasion, the girls continue to live their daily lives as if nothing could ever go wrong. All of this changes when their father admits that he lost his fortune and in order to keep their home, he has arranged marriages for both of them. These are not an ordinary arranged marriages as their father has decided to marry them to two American citizens. However, before all is said and done, Japanese troops begin to attack the outskirts of the city and both Pearl and May's worlds are further turned upside down with the start of the second Sino-Japanese war.
I have always liked to read literature set during the World War II era. I've read a fair share of books (both fiction and nonfiction) about the Holocaust and the Pearl Harbor bombing.There is a lot of literature published as well about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Essentially, the second World War is one in which it's most clearly shown how everyone was a victim of the irrational phenomenon that is war. The war between China and Japan was a part of WWII, it's just that all the fighting was happening in the Pacific theater and American troops weren't joined by Soviet troops until 1945 in helping fight against Japan. So, with the majority of the fighting concentrated on the Atlantic front, this part of history is often overlooked. There are so many things that were happening inside of China at that moment in time and WWII was crucial in China turning to communism and essentially becoming the country it is today. I really believe that high schools across America should teach much more about the Pacific front.
But anyways, why am I talking so passionately about history? Because Shanghai Girls takes place in one of these crucial moments of history. The authors takes us on a journey; she shows us what pre-war Shanghai was like and then has us travel out of the protection of the city with the sisters only for us to see the horrors that await in the countryside. From there, we join the sisters as they try to make their way out of the country and across the ocean to a country that may save them, but to husbands they never wanted to marry. Along this entire journey, the strong bond between May and Pearl is consistently challenged. With completely opposite personalities, the girls often butted heads in Shanghai, but facing this challenge of trying to survive in a country at war and then in a foreign one, the girls face many more challenges that try their relationship.
The book flows very nicely. The author did an amazing job of staying true to historical details as much as she could. Even when the sisters arrive in the U.S., she explains how the depression affected their father-in-law's business and also goes on to explain the type of discrimination the Chinese faced largely because they were confused for being Japanese and for being an "enemy." All of these events really help the characters develop and really brings the story to life.
I will admit that I was disappointed at the end of the book. By the end, China is considered an enemy, not an ally as it has turned to Communism. During this time, secrets are exposed and a terrible tragedy befalls Pearl. In the end, she is forced to go back to China, without May. And that's it. The book shows Pearl leaving but not what happens to her, nor is there any sort of indication of what will happen to her. I was very disappointed until I read that there is a sequel to the book. I'm currently waiting for my sister to finish reading it so I can read it myself.
All in all however, Shanghai Girls was an enjoyable read. It reminded me somewhat of one of my favorite books ever, "To Live" by Yu Hua. Pearl and May must face hurdle after hurdle and learn to survive, each in their own way much like the main character of "To Live" must do. I really liked this book, despite it's ending. I won't be giving a final rating until I've read the sequel as it seems to be a direct continuation of the storyline, but I wanted to record what my thoughts were after reading the first installment. :)