A Tale of Two Sisters

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Bettmann / Corbis

Urban intrigue
A cross section of Shanghai's bustling population in 1936

To call Lisa See a versatile writer would be to understate the case. She's best known for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005) and Peony in Love (2007), best-selling novels set in China's past. But her debut work, On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family, was a nonfiction account of Chinese immigrants to America, and she has written a trio of mysteries set in contemporary China. Now, with Shanghai Girls, she has produced an engrossing tale of two sisters (who become sisters-in-law, too, by marrying brothers) that has links to all her previous books.

Its ties to Peony are strong, to Snow Flower even stronger. Like both those works, Shanghai Girls is a work of historical fiction. And like Snow Flower, its emotional heart is a complex relationship between two women (sworn sisters in the earlier novel). They experience traumatic events that would put a strain on any psyche — and any relationship.

When we meet them, the narrator and her sister are living a pampered life in 1930s Shanghai, modeling for the city's famous "beautiful girl" calendars, which were once sold to tout soap or cigarettes and now are popular collectibles. But by the end, they have had to contend with everything from Chinese mobsters and brutal Japanese soldiers to bigoted immigration officials and a rigid father-in-law.

The echoes of On Gold Mountain begin midway through, after a dramatic reversal of fortune forces the sisters to leave Shanghai. They wind up in Los Angeles as the reluctant brides to sons of a Chinatown entrepreneur to whom their father owed a gambling debt, experiencing the racism that characterized Chinese emigrant life. And later, as the story moves past 1949, a connection to See's mystery novels emerges, in the form of a key character heading across the Pacific, leaving the door open for a sequel to take place in the modern People's Republic.

While sure to appeal to See's current fans, the book's cover (adapted from a "beautiful girl" calendar) and title suggest a desire to snare a new clutch of readers: those who can't get enough of Shanghai. Or, to be more precise, a particular Shanghai — the celebrated and notorious treaty port of the 1840s to 1940s that was divided into foreign-run and Chinese-run districts. Now often called "old Shanghai," it gained fame as a place that foreigners could go to get a glimpse of mysterious China (while still enjoying the comforts of home) and Chinese could go to get a sense of the mysterious West (without leaving their native land). And go there many did. Some in person but more as armchair travelers, for old Shanghai was then what it is again now: a popular place to set films and novels.

Readers fascinated by old Shanghai often know the details of treaty-port life inside out, but those hoping to catch See slipping up will be frustrated. She has done her homework — and provides a closing note that helps readers know where to turn to learn more, like to the scholarly yet accessible works of Lynn Pan.

My one complaint is that, while every occurrence described could have taken place, it's hard to accept so many unusual things happening to the same people. The narrator, for example, might have gone from looking down upon rickshaw pullers to loving one, sparred with FBI agents and crossed paths with a famous gangster — but all of those things?

Still, perhaps this criticism is unfair, since my favorite part of Shanghai Girls could be considered just such a plausibility-straining coincidence. It finds the narrator, cast as an extra in a Hollywood film, walking around a backlot version of old Shanghai — and noting how little it resembles the city she remembers.

Wasserstrom is a professor of history at U.C. Irvine and the author of Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A History in Fragments