Dreams of Joy by Lisa See


Lisa See

From a young age, Yunxian learns about women’s illnesses, many of which relate to childbearing, alongside a young midwife-in-training, Meiling. The two girls find fast friendship and a mutual purpose—despite the prohibition that a doctor should never touch blood while a midwife comes in frequent contact with it—and they vow to be forever friends, sharing in each other’s joys and struggles. No mud, no lotus, they tell themselves: from adversity beauty can bloom.

But when Yunxian is sent into an arranged marriage, her mother-in-law forbids her from seeing Meiling and from helping the women and girls in the household. Yunxian is to act like a proper wife—embroider bound-foot slippers, pluck instruments, recite poetry, give birth to sons, and stay forever within the walls of the family compound, the Garden of Fragrant Delights.


Dreams of Joy is the sequel to Shanghai Girls focusing on Joy’s plight in communist China and Pearl’s efforts to get her daughter back.

The chapters which relate the plight of the villagers during the subsequent famine are horrifying and Lisa See is brutally honest, right down to the accounts of how families would swap their children so they wouldn’t have to eat their own flesh and blood. In the afterword, See reveals there are no exact numbers on how many people died but it is estimated to be around 40 million which is just absolutely tragic.

As Joy becomes a mother herself, she begins to realise just how much her own mother loves her and the old wounds finally begin to heal. Pearl becomes Joy’s only salvation and her determination to live leads her into a desperate attempt to get a message through to Pearl who has remained in Shanghai. Pearl, understanding her daughter’s plight, manages to rescue her in the nick of time and makes arrangements to get them all out of China and safely back in the States.

Dreams of Joy isn’t just about Joy’s journey though since Pearl has to return to the country of her birth and face a few ghosts from the past. She is heartbroken when Joy refuses to reconcile but she loves her daughter so much, she can’t bear to leave her behind so she endangers her own life to stay in Shanghai. The Shanghai Pearl knew is almost completely gone but she manages to return to her family home where she finds unexpected love.

As with Shanghai Girls, the characters have to face a great deal of hardship but the human spirit has an amazing propensity to survive and at the heart of it all is the resilience of love. Sisterly love gives way to motherly love in this novel and there is nothing stronger.