You cannot read one of Lisa See's recent novels without learning a lot. In the case of Shanghai Girls, the reader encounters a great deal of information about Chinese history and culture and the experiences of Chinese immigrants to the United States, including what it was like to be confined and interrogated on Angel Island, living and working conditions in LA's Chinatown, the practice of selling the papers of dead children to others who wanted to migrate, and (completely new to me) the challenges Chinese Americans faced during the Red-baiting of the 1950s.
See weaves all of this information into her story of two sisters, Pearl (the narrator) and May. As the book opens, they are somewhat scandalously working as "beautiful girls"--models who pose for commercial artists and photographers. Their life in Shanghai is comfortable, until their father's gambling debts catch up with him. Soon, they have essentially been sold as brides to sons of a Chinese enterpreneur in the United States; they marry but avoid traveling to the United States with their new husbands. This turns out to be a bad decision, as they end up fleeing from the Japanese and the "Green Gang" to whom their father owned money. Their flight is grueling, but they eventually make it to the United States, where they end up spending months on Angel Island.
The remaining two-thirds of the book are devoted to their lives with their husbands (yes, the same husbands whose father "bought" them) and in-laws as they struggle to make their way in the United States. Again, the hardships are many, and See aims to show both the support and challenges that being part of an extended family offers, as well as the toll that keeping secrets takes. Irritatingly, the book ends with a clear set-up for a sequel (i.e., a major conflict/problem is introduced and not resolved near the end of the book).
Shanghai Girls is informative and interesting, but See is less effective in making the human relationships come alive than she is in educating us about aspects of Chinese-Americans' experiences. At times, her writing seems choppy; at other times, however, Pearl's thoughts are presented in more fluid and complex language. The author's intent may be to convey something about the difficulties of communicating in a new language compared with thinking in one's native tongue. However, the variance in writing doesn't seem to be consistent and See does not provide any clues as to her intent, so it is tempting to conclude that her writing is merely inconsistent.
For a book group that has not read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I would definitely recommend that book over this one. However, Shanghai Girls certainly provides lots of material for discussion for a group interested in China and/or Chinese Americans in the early to mid-20th century.
What's the first impression you have of a new place? Is it the first meal you eat? The first time you have an ice cream cone? The first person you meet? The first night you spend in your new bed in your new home? The first broken promise?