China Dolls by Lisa See
Published by Bloomsbury in 2014
My copy: Library
It’s 1938 and the exclusive Oriental nightclub in San Francisco’s Forbidden City is holding auditions for showgirls. In the dark, scandalous glamour of the club, three girls from very different backgrounds stumble into each other lives.
All the girls have secrets. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family which has deep roots in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese.
Then, in a heartbeat, everything changes. The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor and paranoia, suspicion, and a shocking act of betrayal, threaten to destroy their lives.
It wasn’t until after I’d picked this book up in the library that I realised I had actually tried – and failed – to read two of See’s other novels. Years ago I attempted to read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but the overly graphic depictions of foot binding put me off – I can be a bit squeamish! I also read about half of Peony In Love but just couldn’t get into it. When I realised this, I almost didn’t bother with this one, but I’m glad I did.
The book follows – and is narrated by – three young women: Ruby, Grace and Helen, living in the US in the 1940s. Ruby is outspoken, Helen is secretive and Grace is nervous – but one thing they do have in common is they all want to be performers. They begin working in nightclubs in San Francisco, dancing and singing for American socialites. But life isn’t always easy, with families and men getting in the way – and when Pearl Harbour is bombed life gets even harder for the three girls.
The novel follows the three over a period of ten years, and a lot happens to them, both good and bad. I got into this novel almost straight away and found it hard to put down. I loved the setting of the US in the 1940s, and the contrast between the world of the nightclubs and the harsh realities of war were cleverly depicted.
I did, at times, find Helen a little bit unbelievable and hard to pin down, and I liked Grace and Ruby a lot more – although at times their voices were all a little too similar. Despite this the three characters developed well over the course of the book and the different perspectives gave the book a well-rounded feel. I also liked the way some of the more peripheral characters kept reappearing at the book progressed. There were no irrelevant characters, and everyone had a part to play, however small.
Overall I enjoyed this novel a lot and I’m glad I gave Lisa See a third chance. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys character-led novels, with an interesting (recent) historical setting.