Pearl and May are beautiful young ladies who live in the lap of luxury and love the attention they receive as models, however their carefree existence comes to an abrupt end when their father announces they will have to marry to pay the debts he’s accrued.
The girls are horrified when they discover they have been sold as brides to Chinese brothers who now live in the States, and only one marriage is destined to be consummated when they meet briefly for the wedding. The girls deliberately miss the ship to San Francisco, however they soon realise they have made a grievous error when the Japanese invade Shanghai and they have to flee for their lives.
With their parents dead, Pearl and May have only each other to rely on and the bonds of sisterhood are stretched to the limit when Pearl is brutally raped and May discovers she’s pregnant. The girls manage to get passage to the States where they endure months of questioning in Angel Island before they are allowed to join their husbands. May is forced to conceal her pregnancy as she never slept with her husband and the girls make a pact that will change their lives forever: Pearl will be the child’s mother.
Once the sisters are reunited with their husbands, their fortunes differ and they have to learn to live in a society that does not want them. Pearl adapts to a life of drudgery but she quickly grows to resent her sister’s success when May becomes an actress and resumes her carefree lifestyle since her husband has the mind of a child. As the years pass, the dynamics in the family begin to change when the older generations die and Pearl soon finds herself in a position of power but her bitterness towards her sister runs deep. Once China becomes Communist, the family find themselves under constant scrutiny as old secrets threaten to destroy them and just when the sisters need each other the most, a terrible betrayal rips Pearl’s life apart.
Lisa See never fails to impress me and I was quickly drawn into the story of these two sisters, each so different from the other. While Pearl loves her sister and is very protective of her, she can’t help feeling jealous of May’s vibrant nature and the attention she gets without even trying. Pearl seems stuck in the shadow of her sister for much of the novel but this story is very much about Pearl’s journey of self discovery and just when she seems to have reached her goals, it is all cruelly ripped away.
The contrast between the kind of life the sisters led in Shanghai before the occupation and the life they have to endure in the United States is a striking one. Although the girls are still very much bound by tradition, they have far more freedom in Shanghai than I would’ve expected where they earned a living as calendar models. As the more vivacious sister, May is a natural at posing for these pictures and she uses her beauty to her advantage to seduce the photographer with whom her sister has fallen in love. I had no idea these types of adverts had ever been done in China but I’ve seen a few of them on the internet and they are absolutely beautiful so it is hardly surprising these girls became stars of the day.
The arrival of the Japanese is devastating to Shanghai and See conveys the terror convincingly, particularly when the girls and their mother are brutally attacked by soldiers. The attack causes the death of their mother, however Pearl protects May from harm and must suffer the consequences as a result. Pearl is always putting her sister’s welfare before her own but I’m afraid May takes it all for granted.
The sisters have to get used to a whole new way of life in San Francisco within a family that is far poorer and far more strict than their own. However, nothing is what it appears to be and the sisters soon learn the shocking truth about why their passage to the States was paid. See also evokes the atmosphere of the time exceptionally well as the Chinese were viewed with mistrust by the Americans, particularly in the period when Mao converted China to communism. The prejudice is often explored subtly but is nevertheless powerful.