I’ve been a big fan of Lisa See’s books since I read Shanghai Girls three years ago. Something about her characters and storytelling always grabs me early on in the story and keeps me turning pages until the end. So I was really excited to read her latest novel, China Dolls, which details the triumphs and struggles of Chinese-American women and their relationships with each other and their Chinese heritage.
Most of See’s books are set, at least partially, in China. This is the first that takes place entirely in America. The story follows three women – Ruby, Helen and Grace – who meet in San Francisco in the 1930s and chronicles the path their friendship takes over the following decades. Each of them harbors a different devastating secret about her past, and these secrets threaten to destroy the relationships they hold dear.
Something about this book I found particularly interesting was the focus on World War II-era Chinese nightclubs, particularly the real-life Forbidden Palace club, and the Chop Suey Circuit — the city-to-city touring circuit that Chinese-American singers, dancers, musicians and actors traveled during the ’30s and ’40s. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many of these performers faced intense pressure to prove that they were of Chinese descent; those suspected of being Japanese or Japanese sympathizers were treated as hostile. Many Japanese people — including some masquerading as Chinese — were eventually rounded up and sent to internment camps for the duration of the war. It was fascinating, and sad, to read about how misplaced fears and prejudices deeply affected these individuals, many of whom were American citizens and felt betrayed by their own government. All in all, this is the kind of book that makes you want to learn more about its subject matter even after the story is over.
Rated: Moderate. There is a fair amount of sexual content in the book, as some vaudevillian acts described feature female nudity. There is also a sex scene that is described in some detail. While for the most part the book contains mild violence, one scene in particular is decidedly more graphic and disturbing. There is some moderate language.