"The New York Times bestselling author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony In Love, Shanghai Girls, and Dreams of Joy returns with her highly anticipated new novel. A bold and bittersweet story of secrets and sacrifice, love and betrayal, prejudice and passion, China Dolls reveals a rich portrait of female friendship, as three young women navigate the "Chop Suey Circuit"--America's extravagant all-Asian revues of the 1930s and '40s--and endure the attack on Pearl Harbor and the shadow of World War II"-- "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?"--
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"China Dolls" hooked me with well-written characters, trials and tribulations they experienced that were wholly believable, and an ending that left me satisfied and breathing a sigh of relief. Lisa See's novel is the story of Helen, Ruby, and Grace, three young women living in San Francisco in 1938, who meet and become dancers at the Forbidden City, a nightclub near Chinatown. Though they come from very different backgrounds, the three become fast friends, navigating the world of prejudice of their Oriental backgrounds and their own dreams of the future while battling the rollercoaster of their pasts. Helen comes from a privileged and highly respected family living in Chinatown's largest compound. Grace hails from the Midwest and went to San Francisco seeking a new life away from her physically and emotionally abusive father. Ruby is a seductive vixen with no qualms about using her wiles to get ahead. Each of them, though, harbors secrets which lead to chasms within their friendships and tumultuous years ahead.
The novel is written in first person accounts by the three, each one narrating various different chapters throughout. It is easy to get wrapped up in their storylines, to cheer them on when they do good, to get frustrated when they are being naive, or to feel disdain when they do something offensive.
The story ends 50 years later, when the characters gather together for a 50th Anniversary show for the Forbidden City. It does a phenomenal job of resolving the fates of all the characters, tying up all the loose ends in a neat bow, just the way I like.
Each chapter of the book is
I'm usually a big fan of Lisa See's books, but this one was a little bit disappointing.
Although I had some knowledge of the Japanese detention camps, I knew nothing about the "Oriental" nightclubs or the "Chop Suey" circuit of the time. The story and the Afterward led me to read more about reality behind See's fiction. It is really as fascinating as her book makes it.
I've read all of See's work. I enjoy her writing style, her well developed characters, and the view she gives us into unfamiliar worlds. This newest book lives up to her previous work.
What did not appeal to me so much was that the girls seemed to be friends almost because there was no one else around at the time. They seemed to bicker a lot, fight about boys, and constantly try to be the most successful dancer in the group.
Then WWII breaks out and the world as they know it changes. These parts of Lisa's books are always interesting to read. However, this time, it seemed to gloss over much of the historical issues and just give the readers a quick glance at Japanese internment camps, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and what it was like to be an oriental during the war.
Overall a good read, but not my favorite Lisa See book. I received a complimentary copy as part of the LIbrarything Early Reviewers.
When China Dolls opens in 1938, Grace is bruised, beaten, and on the run, escaping by bus from a small Ohio town where the only Chinese people are her own family, and headed for San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition where she hopes to find work as a dancer. Naive and still very young, Grace soon meets reserved Helen, who grew up steeped in the culture of Chinatown, and wild Ruby who’s from Hawaii. They become fast friends, sharing meals, apartments, and nights on the town while encouraging and supporting each other’s ambitions.
Fluctuating fortunes, clashing romantic interests, and the withheld secrets create tensions that at times turn the devoted pals into temporary frenemies. Their lives shift abruptly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, especially Ruby’s since her family still lives on those islands. The three narrators worked for me--I enjoyed delving into their different life stories and having their varied perspectives. Lisa See made me care about and sometimes ache for each of them, even when they behave badly toward each other.
I very much looked forward to this book, having so much enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls. However, I really disliked Peony in Love (the main character was a ghost for 75 percent of the book!) and Dreams of Joy, the sequel to Shanghai Girls, was not as good as its predecessor. So, I hoped that this book would belong in the category of my favorites. Unfortunately, it did not. Although very well researched, it was as if all of that research had to be put in the book. This did not advance the narrative. The plot moved very slowly. It did get a bit better as the story moved along. But the characters were not particularly likable and at least at the beginning I had to keep reminding myself which girl had which back story. The "voice" of the narrator changed to a different girl with each chapter. I did learn some things about those times, particularly about the entertainment line of work they were in, and I always enjoy the Chinese sayings which were peppered throughout the book. Overall, I say fair to middling on this one.
I honestly had trouble really liking this book. I found the writing somewhat mediocre and I really didn't care for any of the characters, even by the end of the novel. Calling their relationship a "friendship" seemed to be somewhat of a loose interpretation of the word, as the young women never seemed to have a close relationship and were tirelessly having petty arguments amongst themselves or constantly seemed to be in competition with one another for fame and popularity. However, despite my mixed feelings about the characterization, I did enjoy the setting of the book, and I feel like I was enlightened about the United States during World War II and the attitudes Americans had about the Japanese and thus the Japanese American people at the time.
I've enjoyed other books by Lisa See, but this one just didn't hit the mark for me.
Unfortunately, through no fault of the author or the book itself, "China Dolls" didn't meet my reading needs at this time, so I didn't finish it, hence the lack of a rating.
There, I've said it! I loved Snow Flower, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy (Peony is sitting on my night stand) and am a big Lisa See fan. So three hits and a miss still leaves her at the top of my "Author's to Read No Matter What" list.
China Dolls is the story of Grace, Ruby, and Helen, three Chinese girls who become best
What prevented me from rating this book more highly was the relationship between the girls. For being best friends, these girls frequently were downright mean to each other. They all had secrets they hid from each other, and secretly thought the worst of each other more often than not. This prevented me from truly caring about any one of these girls.
I still recommend reading this book, if only for the fascinating historical subject matter, if nothing else.
Because of the instability of such friendships, the three girls will test a reader’s loyalty and sympathy. They may be each other’s closest friends, but when it comes to achieving their objectives, no friendship stands in their way. In fact, in several instances, the girls deliberately set out to hurt one another either as retribution for previous grievances or merely as a stepping stone to their own desires. All of them are guilty of such backstabbing behaviors, which makes it difficult to find one character with whom to empathize. Yet all three have their own shameful secrets that contribute to the psychology of their friendship and ease some of the disappointment readers might feel at the damage each girl causes the other.
Another area of sheer vividness within China Dolls is the historical details throughout the novel. Ms. See shows so much more than the elements of the period. There is an attitude within the novel that complements the judgment, the pressure to succeed, the burden of assimilation, and the ugly discrimination around which the story builds. There is also the air of invincibility within the novel that befits the young heroines. Combined with the exquisite details of dress, slang, atmosphere, and attitudes, China Dolls is an excellent example of historical fiction.
China Dolls is the type of novel that will make readers rage with frustration at the ignorance and incivility with which past generations treated other cultures. That this injustice does not limit itself to Caucasians but spans all cultures is equally disturbing. The prejudices between those of Chinese origins and those of Japanese descent are uncomfortable to witness but not nearly as unpleasant as the racial epithets Ms. See uses to highlight the challenges the girls face when trying to entertain a mainly white audience. Her matter-of-fact presentation of the ethnic disparity of the era is particularly gripping after the war starts, and blatant bigotry becomes acceptable in the guise of patriotism. While the story is about three girls willing to brave a cruel world filled with cultural and gender bias in order to live their dreams is filled with intrigue, joy, disappointment, and courage, the secondary story of the prejudices against anyone of Asian descent is equally compelling.
Grace Lee was well brought up. She came from a small town in Ohio and was woefully naïve. Her parents operated a laundry. Helen came from a wealthy family in San Francisco’s Chinatown, her family supplied businesses. She was sheltered and controlled by her family. Ruby came from a traditional Japanese family, a family of fishermen. She was a free spirit. Each had a secret.
Grace ran away from home at 17, because of her father’s physical abuse, and while interviewing for a job as a dancer at The San Francisco Exposition, essentially a World’s Fair to begin in 1939, she met a young man named Joe, with whom she was immediately smitten. She, however, does not get the job dancing there; they are not interested in Asian dancers, so she and Joe part ways. As the story develops, their paths cross again.
After being turned down for that job, Grace meets Ruby. Ruby, like Grace, is looking for a job as a dancer in the flourishing nightclub business of Chinatown, and they unexpectedly become friends. They serendipitously meet Helen, who offers to help them find an apartment. They quickly form a triumvirate. A very properly brought up Chinese young lady, with very strict rules to follow, Helen is surprisingly persuaded by them to also apply for a job as a dancer, although she has no experience dancing or working in show business, they offer to teach her. Helen is unsure, her father would be horrified. She knows he would believe that this kind of a job would bring shame upon the family, and as a traditional Chinese, he believes a woman is of less value than even the worst man. Helen decides to defy her father and take the job when she gets it. The money is better than what she earns in her position at the Telephone Exchange, and she convinces her father that she can better help with their finances by adding more money to her brother Monroe’s school fund. The money persuades her father to allow his “worthless” daughter to take the job. Over the next decade, all three women experience ups and downs, romance, success, failure, joy and tragedy. Chinese proverbs pepper the pages. Sometimes, their friendship stretches the bonds of loyalty and sometimes it ignores them. The effect of world events on their lives and individual futures, rolls out over the pages.
The injustice of the Japanese internment camps is exposed and described in detail. The roundups, helplessness of the victims and panic of the accusers is objectively presented. The cruelty of those in power, their bias and mistrust are all evident. Japanese-Americans were treated almost as poorly as the Jews in Germany, when they were rounded up, although their ultimate fate was far better than those who fell under the hammer of Hitler. They were suspect, and therefore interned like criminals, forced to give up their homes and possessions, confronted by armed guards and vicious dogs, not because of anything they did, but because of the behavior of their Emperor, Emperor Hirohito, who declared war on the United States. America’s behavior was shameful and inexplicable, regardless of its fear of the unknown enemy.
The narrative uncovers the strict culture of the Chinese almost 8 decades ago, the misogyny, the need for a woman to know her place in the world and the family structure. She was required to be absolutely obedient to the patriarch and to provide support for all the males in the family, financially, and in terms of housekeeping and cooking. A hopefully propitious marriage was arranged for her, and her future was planned by her parents.
Ultimately, it felt like it took too long for the war and the racism to be introduced into the narrative. Almost half the book passed before the issue of the Japanese Internment Camps came up. It also seemed to take too long for the issues between the Chinese and Japanese to be introduced. America’s Japanese-American families lost many young men who volunteered to fight for America, in spite of the injustice and cruelty of being uprooted, carted off like animals, and placed in camps. They were Americans, after all; they loved America and wanted to support its war effort. Some made the ultimate sacrifice.
This story begins when Grace is 17, and except for a brief foray into a time forty years later when the story is summed up, it ends when she is 27. She reinvents herself as necessary in order to survive the lean years that come and go. All three women have surprising strength and ability to endure. When Ruby‘s cultural background was betrayed by an unknown person, there were dreadful consequences. The guilty person is not exposed until the very end of the book, but the reader may very well guess who the culprit is, before the last page. The ghastly reason for Helen’s secret shame and behavior is also revealed near the end of the book.
In the time period in which this book occurs, all stripes of prejudice are aired and put on trial, and prejudice is found guilty. The background of the story in the nightclubs of Chinatown is based on historic facts. Charlie Low did open up The Forbidden City, there were famous Chinese dancers and performers and famous Hollywood stars frequented the clubs. There was a “Chinese Frank Sinatra”.
I discovered that there is another book from which Lisa See did a lot of research, for when I looked into the history of Chinatown nightclubs, it popped up on the screen. I thought I was reading a review of “China Dolls” and didn’t realize until after that it was a review of a non-fiction book, written by Trina Robbins, Forbidden City: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs. Lisa See lists it in her bibliography.
The reader of this audio was good, but she was not able to develop a clear individual voice for each woman and so I was often confused, was it Grace or Ruby speaking? That said, it did not inhibit my enjoyment of the book.
This book contains three strong women characters each with their own interesting
The women’s characters are well-developed, as are their family, friends and coworkers. Rich with historical detail, the World War II era comes to life. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion are heightened, and we vividly experience the prejudice, discrimination and racism of the times through each of the women’s eyes. Written with cringe-worthy realism, the author vividly portrays an unfortunate period of history where bigotry became acceptable, and even encouraged, to promote patriotism.
Perhaps it was the alternating viewpoints, the large number or characters or the need to fill in a lot of back story, but for me, the book had a slow start. At first the women seemed a lot alike. But once war broke out, their lives took different paths and the plot began to accelerate, following each woman’s life through the end of the war. The novel closes with a jump 50 years into the future, providing a satisfying epilogue to each of their stories.
Jodi Lang’s narration was performed with emotion and enthusiasm. It took me an hour or so to get comfortable with her style, but once I did, the characters came alive.
Having multiple points-of-view and only one narrator, as opposed to using an ensemble cast, made the audio a little more difficult to follow, especially in the early part of the novel when we are still learning the back story. Plus, there were many secondary characters and their relationships to each women to remember. Jodi did change her voice while performing the narration for each of the girls, but Helen and Grace sounded too similar at times. While this book requires some additional concentration, experienced audio listeners should enjoy the production.
Grace is 17 and has run away from her violent father in the mid-West; she has never met another Chinese person other than her parents until she hits San Francisco. Helen has a well to do father who runs the family compound with an iron fist; her brother escorts her to and from work to ensure her virtue. Ruby’s parent’s live in Hawaii; she lives with her aunt and uncle and is a wild child compared to the other two; when she doesn’t make the cut at the nightclub, she joins a revue at the Exposition that has the girls virtually nude. Despite their differences in personality and origin and blow ups that left them not speaking for years at times, their relationship continues for 50 years. All three have secrets, and those secrets are frequently the source of their problems.
This was the most gripping book I’ve read in some time; it sucked me right in and didn’t let go until I’d finished it, which I did in one day. It’s women’s literature, it’s Asian-American literature, it’s historical fiction. See has, as always, put a huge amount of research into her book. Some of the Chinese-American entertainers from the era are still alive and See was able to interview them and get first hand information about what it was like: the prejudice; the cringe-worthy, self deprecating acts that made the Occidentals laugh; the Japanese-Americans were all treated as traitors after Pearl Harbor. I love this book.