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China Dolls by Lisa See

Source: Random House
Hardcover, 400 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

China Dolls by Lisa See spans pre-WWII, WWII, and after the war when Chinese immigrants and American-born Chinese were constantly stereotyped and pushed to the sidelines, and when America goes to war against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, proving you’re American becomes even more important.  Grace Lee has left Ohio in a hurry and ends up in San Francisco with crushed dreams and no friends, until she meets Helen Fong, who is from a traditional Chinese family in Chinatown.  She’s uptight and traditional, harsh on Grace and later on Ruby Tom, but she’s also searching for her own path, wishing that her own dreams could be realized.  Hollywood is often considered the land where dreams come true, but in this case, these Asian women find their dreams in San Francisco, though those dreams are often marginalized by their own pettiness and the world that looks down on their culture and abilities.

“Helen and I sat on the floor a little apart from the other ponies, who massaged one another’s feet, stretched, and gossiped.  Every day Helen arrived at rehearsal in a dark wool skirt, long-sleeved black sweater, and charcoal-gray wool stockings, but she quickly changed out of them.  To my eyes, it seemed like she was shedding not just layers of clothing but layers of tradition.” (page 47 ARC)

Grace is a broken young woman of seventeen and very naive, and in many ways Helen and Ruby are all too happy to teach her lessons about the real world, but they often underestimate her resiliency, her willingness to forgive, and her determination to succeed.  Whether she is running from her past in Ohio, her failed attempt at stardom at the Golden Gate International Exposition, or the rumors that circulate around her during WWII, Grace must turn inward to find her strength and remain true to her dream.  She may take advantage of every opportunity around her when it presents itself, even if it comes as something tragic befalls her friends, but she never purposefully creates those opportunities.  Ruby and Helen, on the other hand, are downright Machiavellian, though in Helen’s case, her machinations come from an emotional devastation that she struggles to keep hidden daily.

“I don’t want to remind them”—and it didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out I was talking about the FBI and the WRA—”I exist.  I don’t want to risk being sent to Leupp to join my parents.  I want to forget all that.  You left your mother behind.  Now I’ve left mine.” (page 262 ARC)

China Dolls by Lisa See is about chasing your dreams, making them come true, and all the petty jealousies and ups and downs that come with that, particularly in show business.  See masterfully weaves the history of the time period into these ladies’ lives.  It would be an excellent selection for book clubs as it raises questions about racial discrimination, inter-race relations, and prejudices within cultures based on socioeconomic and cultural differences, as well as what it means to be patriotic.

About the Author:

Lisa See, author of the critically-acclaimed international bestseller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), has always been intrigued by stories that have been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up, whether in the past or happening right now in the world today. Ms. See’s new novel, Shanghai Girls, once again delves into forgotten history.  Visit her Website, Facebook, and Twitter.

17th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

  • I love the sound of this one. WW2 and San Francisco. Two of my favorite settings. I’m surprised to realize I haven’t read any of her books yet.

    2 Kids and Tired Books
    Holly (2 Kids and Tired)´s last blog post ..Child of Mine…Review

  • I’m listening to this right now and having trouble getting into it – maybe it’s the narration.

    • It started off gradually for me, but after you are introduced to all three women, it really started to pick up.

  • This is on my reading list for the summer! Lots of WWII era books this year!
    Harvee
    Book Dilettante

    • I don’t think they ever go out of favor.

  • This sounds fantastic! I’ll have to borrow it from you.

    • feel free to borrow it anytime

  • I love her books, and yes she is part Chinese. I find that fascinating.

  • Ti

    I heard her speak at the Festival of Books one year and was surprised to hear that she is part Chinese.

    I tried to read Shanghai Girls and it didn’t click with me. I haven’t picked her up since that book.