|Dreams of Joy
(Shanghai Girls #2)
4 / 5
"The wail of a police siren in the distance tears through my body."
In her most powerful novel yet, acclaimed author Lisa See returns to the story of sisters Pearl and May from Shanghai Girls, and Pearl’s strong-willed nineteen-year-old daughter, Joy. Reeling from newly uncovered family secrets, Joy runs away to Shanghai in early 1957 to find her birth father—the artist Z.G. Li, with whom both May and Pearl were once in love. Dazzled by him, and blinded by idealism and defiance, Joy throws herself into the New Society of Red China, heedless of the dangers in the Communist regime. Devastated by Joy’s flight and terrified for her safety, Pearl is determined to save her daughter, no matter the personal cost. From the crowded city to remote villages, Pearl confronts old demons and almost insurmountable challenges as she follows Joy, hoping for reconciliation. Yet even as Joy’s and Pearl’s separate journeys converge, one of the most tragic episodes in China’s history threatens their very lives.
Wow. It was amazing to revisit the story of Pearl and May, who I hadn't encountered since reading Shanghai Girls about a year ago. This book was even better than the first - if only because of how much it taught me about Communist China in the 1950s. Unbelievable. I don't even know what to say about it all.
The story? It's of Pearl's (and May's, if you know the story) daughter, Joy, who decides in her confusion after the end of the last book to go to China, believing strongly in Chairman Mao's ideology. (I think I might have felt the same way, hearing of the idealism of socialism and communism - despite how much of an evil it was considered during that postwar era.) She's been even more convinced regarding the ways of China's politics by a college boyfriend, which is also believable. So Joy decides to run from the only family and life she has ever known, to seek out her birth father and her destiny in China. Her travels are difficult right from the start, but she makes it past Red China's borders and begins her life there, having successfully reunited with Z.G. Her time there sounds so promising in the beginning, as she builds new relationships and embraces the ideals of the communes she visits. That part of the story was interesting, of course, but it was afterwards when the true meat of the story began.
Joy's mother Pearl follows her daughter to China, convinced that her daughter needs to be rescued. Pearl meets up with Joy just as the younger is about to get married to a country boy and become part of a rural household. Despite her parents' protestations, Joy marries the man out of what she believes is love. However, her bubble is soon burst as she begins to experience provincial life, and life under the Chairman and his minions. Starvation makes monsters of the country's people, inducing many of them even to cannibalism. It was so difficult to read the graphic descriptions that See renders with her writing; I was constantly gasping in horror at her stories, but I believe she writes from true history. The way she was able to frame this terrible experience within a story of familial love made it all more bearable, but just. Having grown up well past the Red Scare, I had no real feelings about Red China. I only knew that I recognized the promising ideals of Communism, and always thought it might be a good political system, despite the paranoia that many were fed post-WWII regarding it. However, I had no real knowledge of the Communist China which existed in the 1950s (although, come to think of it, I did know how rough it was in the USSR during my childhood, which is odd). I think this was a great book for me to read; I really had no clue at all about how things went down under Chairman Mao. I only knew I was supposed to see him as an evil dictator. Now, I understand the horrendous things he made his people suffer under his regime. I understand now why many equated Communism with evil.
I loved revisiting characters whom I had grown to love in Shanghai Girls. But I also love that the author decided to write more through the eyes of Joy, the product of post-war America, more than from the eyes of the women who were featured in the first book. I think it was a beautiful way to continue the story, as it particularly emphasized the strong family and generational bonds which the Chinese embrace.
The title was a great double entendre, too. I don't know if See intended to continue her first book, and therefore planned the name of Joy, but I like to imagine it just fell into place for her as she was contemplating her sequel. It's just too perfect.
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