Thursday, March 30, 2017

"China Dolls" by Lisa See

China Dolls isn't like many other of Lisa See's books, which is why I think it suffers from a lower-than-usual average Goodreads rating. So many of the reviews there mention that they wanted more Chinese culture in this book, when China Dolls is about mostly second generation Americans who are trying their best to fit into the more Eurocentric culture of the late '30s and '40s. You view the story from three perspectives: Grace's (a girl from the Midwest who's new to the big city), Helen's (who defies her family in order to help Grace and become her friend), and Ruby's (a personality-plus girl who isn't shy about getting her way). Because Grace is a country bumpkin like I am, I tend to relate to her perspective the best- her parents raised her without Asian cultural influences, so a lot of what Helen and Ruby introduce her to is new. Since the summary gives it away- Ruby is Japanese, but passing for Chinese, which becomes an important part of the book later on.

This book focuses on friendship, but also why people become friends in the first place. Grace obviously needs a friend at the start of this book, and when Helen steps up to help her and they later meet Ruby, it seems pre-destined that they should all become companions, especially when they all end up working together. All of them have different motives for this, but as the book progresses they become more clear. If you don't like books about complex friendships between women, this is probably one you'd be better off skipping.

The Plot (As Seen on Goodreads):
'An exciting new novel set in the "Chop Suey Circuit" of San Francisco right before World War II, from the beloved bestselling author of Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.
'In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco's exclusive "Oriental" nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco's Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?'

I really enjoyed the atmosphere of this book, which is kind of odd given the amount of people I've seen that seem to dislike it. Here's the deal- I was raised on classic American movies AKA Old Hollywood type films. Grace, Helen, and Ruby all remind me of the women in those films- with spunky slang and embodying the sort of perseverance it takes when life doesn't go your way. To me, the book felt incredibly realistic, which always makes for a better book, especially when it's historical fiction.

One thing that stood out about this book that I like is you get to see the characters again much later in life and get to see how their relationship has held up. In some books, I feel a bit put out when it ends and everything is too cleanly resolved- this book gives you an ending worthy of the relationship between the dynamic trio. Grace, Helen, and Ruby never lived the "perfect" life, so the ending was well suited to their story.

China Dolls is the sort of historical fiction you might want to pick up when you feel a bit out of sorts. I'd know, as I've been out of sorts for most of 2017 and this was a welcome distraction. While China Dolls isn't my favorite book by Lisa See, it's a standout due to the complexities of Grace, Helen, and Ruby's relationships. Also, quite a bit of the plot surprised me, which usually doesn't happen with this sort of historical fiction. I recommend this to those who are willing to endure a bit of heartbreak before a satisfying ending.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars for a great historical fiction featuring three complex women.

Age Advisory: Ages 16+ for brief sexual content and racism.

Page Count: 400 pages

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