My Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Captivating historical fiction about identity, heritage, ancestry, family, sisterhood, growing up, immigration, politics, indifference and cruelty.

The ideas that stuck with me:

  • Our priorities change as we mature in ways we couldn’t have envisioned.

  • We reap the investments (or lack thereof) of our ancestors, and the sacrifices we make today likely won’t pay off while we’re alive.

  • What we’re worried about most will never happen, but something else will that we never even imagined worrying about.

  • Most things are outside of our control.  

Shanghai Girls follows two sisters who flee Shanghai during World War II in arranged marriages and emigrate to Los Angeles, and their subsequent struggles as they in equal parts assimilate as Americans and maintain their Chinese identities in the midst of Mao Zedong-era Communist fear. Although the story is set over two decades between 1937 and 1957, the lessons of the book could not have resonated with me more as we head into an uncertain 2017.

The passage that summarizes Lisa See’s thesis:


“So often we’re told that women’s stories are unimportant. After all, what does it matter what happens in the main room, in the kitchen, or in the bedroom? Who cares about the relationships between mother, daughter, and sister? A baby’s illness, the sorrows and pains of childbirth, keeping the family together during war, poverty, or even in the best of days are considered small and insignificant compared with the stories of men, who fight against nature to grow their crops, who wage battles to secure their homelands, who struggle to look inward in search of the perfect man. We’re told that men are strong and brave, but I think women know how to endure, accept defeat, and bear physical and mental agony much better than men. The men in my lifemy father, Z.G., my husband, my father-in-law, my brother-in-law, and my sonfaced, to one degree or another, those great male battles, but their heartsso fragilewilted, buckled, crippled, corrupted, broke, or shattered when confronted with the losses women face every day. As men, they have to put a brave face on tragedy and obstacles, but they are as easily bruised as flower petals.”