One star, read in June 2014.
I tried to give this two stars, but the more I thought about it, the worse it seemed, and I just don’t think it deserves the second one. I’m a devoted Lisa See fan, and the premise was so intriguing, so I don’t do this lightly. But I really did not like this book.
When I read Song of the Silk Road by Mingmei Yip, I thought it was just terrible, terrible writing. Now I wonder if this is a deliberate style, because I’ve read Lisa See’s other books and the writing was beautiful. But why would she choose to write like this? Because it is terrible writing, it really is. For a moment I thought it might be that she wasn’t good at writing first-person narrators, but no, all her other books had those… Then I wondered if it was the time period, that she was going for some kind of historical feel—but Shanghai Girls takes place in the same setting, and it was beautifully written. True, some of it is a Chinese style, with the proverbs and hyphenated adjectives that I have to admit, I just hate. “Top-top stars,” “no-no girls,” “true-heart friend,” and all that. But the narration is a different thing, and I don’t understand why such a good writer would intentionally use such a painfully unsophisticated style.
“Lee, Tom, sweet ones, let me give this to you straight,” I declared. “Grace and I won’t go to New York unless you hire Helen and Eddie too.” The two men exchanged glances. Could we really be such prima donnas? YES!
Around noon, Joe arrived, wanting to check on us. He looked just as unsettled as we felt: This is bad, very, very bad.
Before Grace could answer, someone pounded on the door. Double fists! Terror shot through my body as my woman parts constricted, yanking in fear up to my heart.
I’ll say this for Charlie: he loved kids. He was patient with them too, as long as they kept quiet. Quiet? What a joke!
To put it mildly—ughhh.
Here’s the other thing, besides the writing: I hated the main characters. Hated them, especially Helen. They’ve all been through terrible experiences, things that make me feel for them, make me willing to forgive a lot—but even so, each of them went beyond what I could tolerate. When I wasn’t cringing at the writing or seething with rage over the racism of the 40s, I was furious about whatever new despicable thing a character had just done (usually to one of the other protagonists). Why were those women friends for so many years?? Relationships can be convoluted things even in less extreme circumstances than our characters faced, so I don’t doubt that such a friendship is possible. But I read nothing in that book that could justify their continued connection over the years, and with how horrifically they treated each other, I just couldn’t care about any of them anymore. I don’t require likable characters to appreciate a book—I’ve read Salinger, Fitzgerald, Toole, Franzen—but I guess this was my limit.
I read most of China Dolls in less than 24 hours, but what drove me was the desire to have finished it, to know whether it stayed as bad as it seemed to be. It did. For how excited I was to read it, for how much I’ve loved Lisa See’s other books, this experience was a major disappointment.