There’s a phrase in Chinese, chi ku (eat bitterness), which Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls exemplifies perfectly. From one end of the book to the other, there’s nothing but hardships and heartaches.
The first hardship I found is not actually in the story in the novel, but comes from the novel itself. See writes in the first person through the voice of Pearl, a girl growing up in Shanghai during the volatile Sino-Japanese war. Unfortunately, Pearl seems too self-aware of other people’s thoughts, motives, and the world in general. Writing in the first person voice, but with an omniscient view of the environment makes Pearl’s thoughts feel artificial and awkward.
Another thing I found difficult to overcome in the novel were the inconsistent choice of Chinese words. The author insists on using the Cantonese word cheongsam for the traditional dresses worn by women at that time, trying to give Pearl a continental and modern flair, yet uses the traditional and scholarly term ‘wu dialect’ instead of the modern ‘Shanghainese.’ I still think that if Pearl were a Shanghai girl, she would have said qi pao, the Mandarin word for cheongsam.
If one can get over the technical problems of the novel, it’s easy to get sucked into the twists and turns of the two Shanghainese girls. But be warned, the book really is like vicariously eating bitterness. There are several graphic scenes that I found difficult to read as well as parts where I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop. See does a decent job of illuminating the difficulties women and the Chinese in general faced during that time.
At the end of Shanghai Girls, I literally sighed. The story has so much potential to be epic, yet falls slightly short of that because of technical difficulties I couldn’t overlook. Maybe I’m just being snobbish because my hometown is Shanghai, but the novel could have been so much better.