Review of China Dolls by Lisa See
Overview from www.barnesandnoble.com: It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.
The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.
Lisa See’s China Dolls was something I wanted to read ever since its first release. The setting is San Francisco, just a few years before the start of World War II. Three girls stumble into a nightclub just outside of Chinatown cleverly named “The Forbidden City.”
Grace is run away from the Midwest who goes to San Francisco to escape an abusive father and cruel “Occidentals” as well as to follow her dream to become a dancer. Shortly after her arrival, she meets up with Helen, a traditional Chinese girl. Grace drags her along on her audition where they meet up with Ruby. Thus begins their life-long friendship, if you can call it that.
I hesitate to call it that because it does seem like any friendship that I have ever experienced. And most friends I know of who have treated each other the way that these three do usually don’t remain friends very long. I realize that this is the cutthroat world of show business but I have to admit that the behavior of Ruby and Helen in particular left me think of that old saying. “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
Grace was the character I identified with most though she can be thoughtless and insensitive at times. Yes, she shouldn’t have forgotten them the way she did but for the most part her ignorance stemmed from her lack of street smarts and her friends refusal to let her know how badly she had hurt them.
The girls each carry their own secrets close to their hearts and appear equally unwilling to share them with the other two girls. This seemed odd to me since they were supposed to be best friends. If you can’t share your secrets with your best friend, who can you share them with?
They struggle through the war and the ugly prejudices that were directed at them, in many cases, by their own customers as well as by the U.S. government and the jealousies of their fellow performers.
They vow not to let a man come between them yet one does. They promise to look out for each other, yet on occasion they can’t seem to resist stabbing each other in the back. Will they hold their friendship together in the end? To find out, read the book.
I liked it well enough yet besides the backstabbing there were other things I didn’t like about the book. The sexual content was more explicit than I remembered reading in See’s previous books (such as Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy) and of course I loved the characters in those other two books so much more.
The detail about the time period was extensive at some points such as the details about all of the laws regarding Japanese Americans and the laws that prohibited Caucasians marrying Asians. Yet later in the story when such marriages occur that involve some of the main characters we are not told how this is suddenly possible. I assume the law must have been revoked later but I don’t know for sure and wouldn’t that be just as important for the characters later in the novel as earlier?
Anyway, I will leave it for the rest of the readers to judge for themselves whether they agree or not. Feel free to let me know what you think.
Contains: sexuality, profanity, war violence