Pearl and May Chin are two of the “Beautiful Girls” of Shanghai in the 1930s. They live the life of the fortunate upper class, going from party to party in the evenings. They are recognized by many because they have posed for calendars, so their beautiful faces are everywhere in Shanghai. One day their world comes crashing down when they find out that their father has gambled away his fortune. To get out of debt he has sold them as wives to Chinese men who live in America.
Lisa See tells the journey of Pearl and May to America and their lives after they arrive in Shanghai Girls. The journey is long and difficult due to the Japanese invasion of China. The girls lose their mother during this journey and arrive in California alone and devastated. There they meet their future husbands who are not at all what they expected. Pearl and May manage to build a life in California despite all that has happened to them.
Dreams of Joy continues the story but focuses on Pearl’s daughter, Joy. Joy’s childhood in southern California was very different from what her mother experienced in Shanghai. When tragedy strikes the family, she reacts badly and her rebellion takes a drastic and potentially fatal turn. Joy is convinced that the Communist Revolution in China is a wonderful new experiment and she runs away to China without telling anyone. Pearl soon follows to try and bring her back.
Many people were upset at the ending of Shanghai Girls because it really left you hanging. Happily, the story is now finished so everyone is able to read the whole saga without interruption. I really enjoyed both books, but was particularly moved by Dreams of Joy. Joy’s experiences in China during the 1950s were fascinating, although dreadful. I had heard some about the “Great Leap Forward” of the communist government, but I had no idea of the extent of suffering in China at that time. The book gave me glimpse into a culture I knew little about.