Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

china-dolls“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?” – Goodreads

I’ve been wanting to read a Lisa See novel for ages, and while I’d planned on starting with some of her earlier work, it turned out that I recently had the chance to read her newest novel, China Dolls. Y’all, am I glad I did! China Dolls is written with a stunning grace and it held me rapt from the first page until the very end.

After fleeing Plain City, Ohio after a near deadly beating from her father, Grace is roaming San Francisco’s Chinatown in search of nightclubs hiring dancers or singers. Helen Fong, daughter of the most powerful man in Chinatown, offers to take her to The Forbidden City, where Chinese dancers are being auditioned that day. When the two young women arrive, Grace convinces Helen to audition with her and inside the nightclub they meet Ruby Tom, another young woman hoping to win a spot on The Forbidden City’s lineup. The three girls form an instant connection and vow to stick together from that moment on. What none of them say, however, is that they each plan to hold on to their own secrets despite their claims of everlasting friendship.

Their friendship suffers its ups and downs, just as life has its ups and downs, but the three ultimately make it through the years together until the fateful attack on Pearl Harbor occurs and Ruby’s family in Hawaii is put under attack. For while Ruby passes herself off as Chinese, in reality she is Japanese, and her family is accused of being spies. Ruby lives in fear for the several month but all three friends become more relaxed as it seems she is getting away with her deception – until the day comes that the FBI shows up to take Ruby away. She is sent to an internment camp with other Japanese-American citizens and life takes on an entirely new meaning for her. How did the FBI find her? Who would have been so cruel as to turn her in after all this time?

This story, seemingly of friendship and betrayal, is so much more than that. It is ultimately about the magic of female friendships and all that can go wrong with them, as well. What truly shines here is the portrayal of the friendship between Grace, Helen, and Ruby. Not just the love, but the jealousies, the deceptions, the rivalries, and the betrayals. Also focused upon is the time period the novel is set in – not only the historical elements of the time (although See covers this splendidly), but also the discrimination these young women experience based on their gender and their race.

I loved the exquisitely specific details included in the novel – of slang, dress, affectation, and atmosphere. I have not read many novels that reach quite this level of detail. China Dolls is a truly excellent specimen of historical fiction. I greatly look forward to reading more of Lisa See’s novels – and I highly suggest that you take the time to read this one.

China Dolls by Lisa See is available at booksellers now. Buy it, read it, love it.

4 stars

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia



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2 thoughts on “Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

  1. alenaslife says:

    If you liked this one, I would highly recommend her earlier works. In my opinion they are even better than this one (or maybe I’ve just come to expect brilliance from See all the time). Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is still my favorite.

    • Pathologically Literate says:

      I’m so glad to hear that, because I’ve been wanting to read her other work for a long time; China Dolls is just the first one I had a chance to read. I’m definitely going to make time for the others, now! 🙂

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