Title: China Dolls
Author: Lisa See
No. of Pages: 400
Genre: Historical Fiction
Origins: Random House
Release Date: 3 June 2014
Bottom Line: Compelling, thoughtful, and exquisitely written
“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.”
Thoughts: One of the areas in which China Dolls shines is in the portrayal of female friendships. For, female friendships are messy. They are highly susceptible to jealousy and rivalry and fraught with the tension that occurs from balancing the healthy versus the unhealthy. Yet, these volatile relationships often last forever. Much as one never forgets one’s first love, a woman will never forget those key female friendships which help define who she is. In Grace, Helen, and Ruby, Ms. See highlights the good, the bad, and the downright ugly in female relationships. They are as close as sisters and yet have no problems betraying each other if it means achieving their goals. There is pettiness, love, guilt, and forgiveness – sometimes all in the same day. Theirs is a brilliant example of unpredictability and ultimate rewards that come from forging strong bonds with other women.
Because of the instability of such friendships, the three girls will test a reader’s loyalty and sympathy. They may be each other’s closest friends, but when it comes to achieving their objectives, no friendship stands in their way. In fact, in several instances, the girls deliberately set out to hurt one another either as retribution for previous grievances or merely as a stepping stone to their own desires. All of them are guilty of such backstabbing behaviors, which makes it difficult to find one character with whom to empathize. Yet all three have their own shameful secrets that contribute to the psychology of their friendship and ease some of the disappointment readers might feel at the damage each girl causes the other.
Another area of sheer vividness within China Dolls is the historical details throughout the novel. Ms. See shows so much more than the elements of the period. There is an attitude within the novel that complements the judgment, the pressure to succeed, the burden of assimilation, and the ugly discrimination around which the story builds. There is also the air of invincibility within the novel that befits the young heroines. Combined with the exquisite details of dress, slang, atmosphere, and attitudes, China Dolls is an excellent example of historical fiction.
China Dolls is the type of novel that will make readers rage with frustration at the ignorance and incivility with which past generations treated other cultures. That this injustice does not limit itself to Caucasians but spans all cultures is equally disturbing. The prejudices between those of Chinese origins and those of Japanese descent are uncomfortable to witness but not nearly as unpleasant as the racial epithets Ms. See uses to highlight the challenges the girls face when trying to entertain a mainly white audience. Her matter-of-fact presentation of the ethnic disparity of the era is particularly gripping after the war starts, and blatant bigotry becomes acceptable in the guise of patriotism. While the story is about three girls willing to brave a cruel world filled with cultural and gender bias in order to live their dreams is filled with intrigue, joy, disappointment, and courage, the secondary story of the prejudices against anyone of Asian descent is equally compelling.