Sunday 9 October 2016

Book Review: China Dolls; Lisa See.

I kept promising that I would get round to reading more of my First Reads wins that ended up being shelved from so long ago, and now I'm making good on that promise starting from now. Technically I was hoping to read this book last month and never got to round to it. I'm sad it took me so long to trust that I would enjoy this book though, because I liked it a lot, though it took me a while to decide what to rate it.

SOURCE: Goodreads Giveaway
TYPE: Paperback

TITLE: China Dolls
AUTHOR: Lisa See
PUBLISHER: Bloomsbury
PAGES: 378
GENRE: Adult, Historical Fiction, Asian Literature

RATING: 3.5/5 Stars

In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco's exclusive ‘Oriental’ nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. 

At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfil their individual dreams. Then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbour and everything changes in a heartbeat. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?

What I Liked:
  • Lisa See's world-building was very impressive, and it's clear that she has a lot of natural ability when it comes to building and researching a setting. I loved that it was a world that was easy to become sucked into, yet was filled with the kind of detail that most books don't delve into too deeply. For me, world-building is especially important in Historical Fiction and yet I like the books to be relateable or comparable to modern times in some way. It definitely was in this book and there was a lot of political, historical and social context/commentary to enjoy.
  • The fact that I enjoyed this book is pretty impressive in itself, as American History is not normally something I particularly enjoy reading. I've also not read a lot of Asian literature, or books with Asian protagonists so I wasn't sure that the book would be my cup of tea. I was so relieved when I found myself hooked pretty much from the start. See's writing is actually very good, easy to read and immersive. I liked it a lot!
What I Disliked:
  • The characters, while complex and multi-faceted, were not necessarily likeable. Grace and Ruby's toxic niceties that covered up a very burning jealousy of each other was fairly tiring to read at times, especially as they acted the complete opposite to what they were thinking and their decisions to do so (a) didn't make sense and (b) didn't match their personalities, particularly in Ruby's case. Helen I liked at first, and then I later found that I didn't understand her at all, which was sad. Side characters such as Joe, Monroe and Eddie were, I think, supposed to be likeable. I didn't.
Overall Conclusion:
I really thought this was an impressive read that I enjoyed and reflected upon, even when I wasn't reading. It lead to a lot of interesting discussions with Mat about the history of which I knew very little about. I liked it's American setting and the facts that See chose to include in this novel in order to build an impressive and believable picture of San Francisco's China Town among other places. It also captured both the bitchiness and camaraderie found in Show Business and that kind of feeling is timeless. I just wish that the characters had been a little more consistent in their thoughts and feelings and tha I had liked them more.

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