Grace, born and raised in a small town in Ohio, is running away from her abusive father and is hoping to get a job as a dancer. Having never seen a Chinese outside of her own parents, Grace is shocked by the strict traditions she witnesses amongst the Chinese community in San Francisco and struggles to overcome prejudice.
On her way to an audition at the famous Forbidden City, Grace meets Helen, a young woman with a tragic past who is trapped by tradition. Yearning to break free, she is swept along with Grace’s excitement and before she knows it, she finds herself taking part in the same audition despite not being a trained dancer.
At the audition, the girls meet Ruby, vivacious and beautiful, who is determined to become famous at any cost but she is hiding a secret. Ruby is Japanese masquerading as Chinese in a dangerous time when Japan have already invaded China and are deeply hated by the Chinese. The three girls quickly become friends when they are all given parts in the chorus line and the rest of the novel follows their various adventures as their fortunes rise and fall.
The most fascinating thing about this story is the history of the all Chinese revue shows that became famous during that era and the fictional characters are interspersed with real life performers who made their name at that time. As usual, Lisa See’s research is impeccable and she vividly captures the feel of the era, however I felt the racist and misogynistic tones were better explored in The Shanghai Girls.
Unfortunately, the friendship between the three girls never really convinced me as they all seemed to have ulterior motives and the conflicts designed to test their relationship were swept aside far too quickly instead of being explored in depth. The story is told in the first person narrative from each girl’s point of view, however their voices weren’t very distinct and I sometimes had a hard time remembering which girl was talking. The dialogue was full of showbiz slang which may have been true to the era but got distinctly annoying after a while. There is also a whole lot of telling going on rather than showing which I wouldn’t have expected from this author.
The tension increases once the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour, although there is barely a mention of the war in Europe prior to this moment, and there is a brief foray into the increased paranoia against the Japanese. Once Ruby’s secret is exposed, she is arrested and sent to the internment camps but her time here is not really explored in any real depth and she is released before too long. I was disappointed the camps were not explored more, particularly since See did such a great job of detailing the fear of communism in The Shanghai Girls so that is definitely something I’m going to seek out in other books.
After the war ends, normal service resumes and the girls manage to get their careers back on track, although Helen seems to have been forgotten about for a while until it is time for the girls all to have a heart to heart over past betrayals. The hard feelings are quickly brushed aside for the sake of their last chance at stardom but the newly reformed act’s days are numbered as they seek different things.
The whole concept of the book was a nice idea, exploring a part of American Chinese history that is probably unfamiliar to many, but it just wasn’t executed to Lisa See’s usual standard.