China Dolls by Lisa See

A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Random House in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.

My love affair with Lisa See’s writing started several years ago, when I picked up Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I went on to pick up almost everything she’s ever written (thank you, library), and can say with authority that she’s one of my favorite authors. I love See’s writing, and her characters are always lively and fully-fledged. The same is certainly true here in China Dolls. It’s the story of Grace, Ruby, and Helen–three “Oriental” girls who happen upon each other on an audition for a San Francisco nightclub in 1938, and form an inimitable bond.

China Dolls is epic in its scope, covering the 1930s and 40s, following Grace, Ruby, and Helen through nightlife in the clubs in Chinatown, the Chop Suey circuit, The Golden Gate International Expo, the Depression, WWII, and Japanese internment camps. The settings are vivid and immersive, and it’s impossible not to be swept away by this book.

And yet, while I enjoyed reading, I struggled at times to understand Helen and Ruby. The book focuses on the friendship between the three girls, and the way they get through all kinds of adversity throughout the years by leaning on each other, even when things between them are strained. Sometimes the girls are downright awful to one another, which seems a fairly lifelike depiction of human nature. It was difficult, though, for me to understand why the girls behaved the way they did. We got glimpses into what made Helen paranoid and perhaps vengeful, but sometimes I felt I was left guessing about her motivation a little too long, and then had all the explanation dumped out at once. Maybe the pacing was just a little off, for me? I wanted to know more about what made Ruby tick, deep down, too. As much as I otherwise enjoyed the story, this was a bit of a sticking point, particularly in the latter half of the book.

Regardless, I enjoyed China Dolls. The historical aspect of the novel was flawless, and a fairly fascinating look into a part of Chinese-American history of which I was pretty much unaware. Books like this are great examples of why I enjoy historical fiction–I come away feeling educated and enlightened about a culture, and having read a good story at the same time. Props to Lisa See for being able to pull off such a feat yet again.

Some suggestiveness, throughout–one character is a bit risque–and a bit of lightly descriptive sex. Some mild language in a few places. 3.5 stars.

First line: “I traveled west–alone–on the cheapest bus routes I could find.”

3.5 Stars

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