What We're Reading Now: 'China Dolls' by Lisa See

So I went into this one a little biased. I’ve read Lisa See’s other works — happily falling into Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, passing them around to any girlfriend I had jumping on a plane, heading to a beach, laying around their pools…you get it — and I generally enjoy the large, colorful brushstrokes See uses in crafting her worlds.

So when I heard music editor Leah Greenblatt was reviewing China Dolls for the magazine, I patiently waited outside her door, tapping my foot and making subtle sounds of indignation, until she finished. This one, I wanted.

Unfortunately, my biases did me no favors.

The premise — three girls looking for nightclub jobs, stardom, a little cash and the bond of female friendship on the brink of WWII in San Francisco sounds, well, fantastic. Two are Chinese, one is Japanese (and working very hard to hide that fact given the anti-Japanese sentiment in late 1930s/early 1940s America), one has run away from her abusive father, one lives in the shadow of her seven older brothers and has her own set of secrets — there’s love and loss and an ultimate act of betrayal…

…and all of that sounds so good, doesn’t it?

But I wanted it to be better. A little more vibrant, alive.

The characters are a little stiff, the dialogue a little trite. Not that I expect three girls of Depression-era San Francisco to speak to each other the way I speak with my friends as born-in-the-’80s-ladies, but they just, for me, didn’t come across as genuine relationships. (Please don’t say it’s because they aren’t and point out that this is a work of fiction — let’s stay within our respective ‘willing suspensions of disbelief, mkay?)

None of this is to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. I think it’s worthy of getting tossed in a travel bag or passed through on a lazy afternoon, I just expected so much (perhaps too much) from it given her prior novels.

I checked in with Leah once I’d finished, and she sort of sighed through similar frustrations, saying, “China Dolls promises a window into a fascinating real-life historical footnote: the Asian nightclub circuit in pre-WWII San Francisco. But See’s stilted writing and two-dimensional characters fail to make her showgirls’ triumphs — or their struggles with pervasive sexism and racism — resonate like they should.”

Anyone else a Lee fan? Have you gotten your hands on this one yet? Tell me what you think.


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