Book Club: Let’s Discuss “Shanghai Girls”

Thank you to whoever recommended this novel for our book club. It was exactly the kind of read I’d been craving — well-written, suspenseful, engaging characters, and a historical context for good measure. For those who haven’t read it and plan to, you should probably stop reading this post now…

OK, so those of you who read the book know it ends with a cliffhanger and that there’s a sequel, Dreams of Joy, that follows Pearl’s daughter Joy as she searches for her biological father, Z.G., in China. Were you surprised to learn who her real father was? I saw that one a mile away. Did your opinion of May change at all learning that she slept with the guy her sister was so gaga over? I thought all along that she was pretty self-interested, so my opinion of her remained the same.

Which sister did you sympathize with more? I found myself more sympathetic toward Pearl, but I thought that for two women who were strong enough to escape to California the way they did, they sure settled into a victim mentality pretty easily for the rest of the book. I kept wanting them to run away and make a better life for themselves and Joy. Especially when Pearl learned that Sam was a paper son and had no emotional allegiance to Father Louie, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to pool their resources and skills and make a new home for themselves.

What did you think about May turning in Sam at the end of the book? What about his suicide? That twist felt a little odd. For all her faults, I can’t imagine May doing such a dumb thing. And Sam, who had accepted such a grim fate for the last twenty-plus years to just hang himself like that seemed far-fetched, too.

And did you believe that both sisters felt that their parents loved the other sister more? As someone who grew up in a two-daughter nuclear family, that part seemed realistic to me, as did the idea of one sister being labeled the “smart” one and one the “pretty” one. Are all two-daughter homes like this? Why are girls/ young women always being defined as one thing or another? Does this happen to boys, too?

Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts on Shanghai Girls, and don’t forget, we’ll be reading Wild for August, which you can buy here (ebook) and here (hardback). And, One Last Thing Before I Go for September, which you can pre-order here (ebook) and here (hardback).





  1. I loved this book as well. I knew the moment that May told Pearl she was pregnant that Z.G. was the father. I liked how the relationship evolved between Pearl and Sam and between Pearl and Old Man Louie. I felt such hatred towards him throughout the book but it definitely softened towards the end. At the end of the book when Joy learns that May is her real mother was heartbreaking. My heart went out to Pearl, especially after losing her husband that she had grown to love. I too thought the suicide seemed like a strange twist that I did not see coming. Not sure yet if I will read Dreams of Joy, although I’m sure if it is a book club book I will.

  2. I was the one who recommended this book. I’m a big Lisa See fan, and she signed my copy of Shanghai Girls at a reading at the 86th St B&N a few years back. I thought this book in particular would speak to the DW community.

    I actually felt that that the fact the sisters stayed with their husbands in California was culturally and historically accurate. Despite being modern “Shanghai Girls” or “beautiful girls” they were still brought up with the mentality to be deferential to men. They were also living in an unfamiliar country, which was particularly hostile towards Chinese immigrants during that time period. I got the impression that the girls were terrified of being deported if a. they left their husbands, who were the sole reason they were able to stay in the US to begin with OR b. Joy’s true parentage was discovered.

    Snowflower and the Secret Fan is also fantastic. I’d venture to say it’s better and more complex with more realistic plot twists.

    1. Avatar photo MaterialsGirl says:

      Snowflower and the Secret Fan is amazing. Seriously. WOW couldn’t put that one down. Peony in Love was my first book and I was also completely engrossed.

      I was saddened by Sam’s suicide, especially after he and Pearl had begun to grow more as a couple. More of the relationship between May and Pearl is expanded upon the in the next book, but there were many times I wanted to smack May for being so selfish.
      Part of the reason I love Lisa See’s books so much is that she really takes you into this culture which is so unfamiliar to me. I felt that I was able to understand the cultural differences better and learn more about the history without having to read a droll history book.

      1. Absolutely. Lisa See is a beautiful writer. She paints a very vivid picture without over-explaining some of the finer points of Chinese culture. For the finer points, I recommend anything by Amy Tan, but particularly The Bonesetter’s Daughter which is my favorite novel to date. And I’m pretty well read- I have many leather bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany 😉 Amy Tan is best known for the Joy Luck Club, but it’s my least favorite of her work, actually.

        Back to Shanghai Girls: like Wendy, I felt Sam’s suicide was a bit over the top. I think See was trying to make a point about the politically charged climate of the 50s and the hostility Chinese immigrants faced. She was trying to illustrate that the pressure he was under was so intense that he felt the only way out was suicide. Unfortunately it seemed out of character and abrupt, as if See was just getting rid of Sam’s character so that she wouldn’t have to deal with his perspective on the situation, especially since she’s setting the stage for Z.G. to reenter the picture in the sequel.

      2. painted_lady says:

        Totally agree with you on Bonesetter’s Daughter vs. Joy Luck Club. Have you read Saving Fish From Drowning? It’s such a departure for Amy Tan, but it’s really good. Also, if you like the Chinese-culture-in-America family stories, check out the movie Dim Sum Funeral if you haven’t. It’s fabulous.

      3. Anthrocuse says:

        I love “Saving Fish From Drowning”. I recommend it to people who want to learn more about Karen and Burmese cultures.

      4. Avatar photo MaterialsGirl says:

        I’ve also read the book by the “seabiscuit” author entitled “Unbroken.” REALLY LONG BOOK and a bit.. well it’s a lot. BUT it does goes very deeply into the prison camps in Japan. It’s a good expansion on the Chinese/Japanese styles of warfare and what goes along with that (torture).

      5. I’ve read Unbroken also – great, but long. I had no idea about the conditions in the camps in Japan, so it was both disturbing and enlightening.

  3. The_Yellow_Dart says:

    I enjoyed this book as well, and I had to rush to get the sequel after finishing it! (I don’t know about you guys, but I always feel that it’s a really cheap move by the author to end on a massive cliffhanger…) I really liked the parts in China, and I was amazed to see how horribly unprepared the Chinese were for the Japanese invasion. Once May and Pearl left the immigration station at Angel Island, I felt the book got a bit slow and repetitive – until the very end, of course. Anyone else feel this way? (I read _Snow Flower and the Secret Fan_ a few years ago and remember enjoying it, but it’s been awhile… I also liked _Dreams of Joy_ better because I thought the Chinese historical context, life under Mao, was so much more fascinating…)

    And Pearl was naturally more sympathetic – but I think that’s mostly because the narrative was filtered through her perspective. We didn’t get very many of May’s thoughts within the narrative (which is why the Z.G. fatherhood could remain a “mystery” for so long). I agree with TaraMonster that Sam’s suicide was overdramatic and unnecessary – though it did make things smoother in the sequel.

    1. Now I am thinking I should read the sequel. I read the first few chapters of it that were added at the end of Shanghai Girls and I was curious but I always feel the need to read a different author right after finishing a book. I finished Gone Girl last night so maybe now is the perfect time.
      Yes, I agree with you that the book was slow and slightly repetitive after they arrived in L.A. but maybe because their daily life was very repetitive at that point.

      1. The_Yellow_Dart says:

        I do recommend it – and it was good to read it while _Shanghai Girls_ was still fresh in my mind…

  4. I really enjoyed this books as well. I also loved Snow Flower, but it’s a few years back now so cannot remember as clearly. I was also surprised by Sam’s suicide, and along with clearly anticipating that Z.G. was Joy’s father, I could almost feel Pearl’s miscarriage coming. I found the dynamic between the sisters very interesting. I come from a family with one younger brother, and although we definitely have our rivalries regarding certain areas, I can’t imagine how different it would be if I had a sister. I imagine much more complex! For those of you that enjoyed the historical fiction aspect and asian culture, try Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Interesting perspective on the Chinese American culture during the time of the Japanese internment camps, and also a sweet love story to boot.

    1. I absolutely loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet! Such a lovely story amidst such anxiety and turmoil.

  5. After coming back from Shanghai, this book came out and I read it solely because of the name. And it turned out much more interesting than I thought it would be. I love all the cultural and historical background throughout. Some of it was a little odd, like the suicide, but I loved it for the most part. I have yet to read the sequel, but I think I will soon.

  6. Throughout the book I found myself more sympathetic to Pearl, as well. I thought May was quite flighty and irresponsible. I’m not surprised that Pearl ended up staying in the situation, because it seemed like she found some contentment with Sam, and really, I don’t know what else she could/would have done. As for May though, I am surprised she stayed. Since she had married a legal American and made a life and work for herself outside of the Chinese community, I would have thought she might have left Vern for another guy, or maybe found a way to become legal on her own. I am also surprised that she informed on Sam, although I can see how that might have come about, as she felt worldly and more knowledgeable than the rest of the family and easily could have thought she was saving them from themselves.

    Sam’s suicide though, was a shock. I didn’t think it was true to his character, although it had to happen in order to advance the plot, I suppose. Otherwise Pearl wouldn’t be running after Joy on her own, and she would have had the issues with lying to Sam to work out.

    I don’t know about the two daughters thing. I have a sister, and a brother. I’m the eldest, my sister is next, and then my brother is the youngest. I guess we sort of fall into roles, but I never thought my parents loved anyone more. My brother is definitely a bit more spoiled though, especially since he’s the only one still at home right now.

    1. Anthrocuse says:

      I agree about May- I’m not really sure why she stuck around. She was such an Americanized-woman in so many ways, it was interesting that she stayed with Vern.

      I was pretty upset with Sam’s suicide. I don’t think I would recommend the book to others because of that (and other) seriously depressing plot points. I know that this really did happen to people, but I just wanted something to go right for the family all along. There aren’t many people who I want to depress this much.

      That being said, I loved the details of how and why she fled China and how she was treated once she got here. I’m always looking for books about immigration and to recommend to Americans to show why refugees and immigrants leave their countries.

  7. Have any of you read The Piano Teacher? Another great story revolving around the Japanese invasion in Hong Kong during WWII.

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