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China Dolls, by Lisa See.

June 8, 2014

China Dolls, by Lisa See.  Random House (2014), Hardcover, 400 pages.

A novel about three women who work as “China Dolls,” dancing in Chinese night clubs in San Francisco before, during, and after World War II.

Lisa See grew up as part of a large Chinese American family in Los Angelos and has written popular books about topics relating to China and to Chinese Americans. On Gold Mountain is the history of her own family. Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan are See’s retelling of Chinese classical writings. Flower Web, The Interior, and Dragon Bones are her enjoyable mysteries that bring together Chinese and American investigators. My favorites of hers are Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, which followed the women of a Chinese family from the Japanese attack on Shanghai to the strictures of Communist rule.

In China Dolls, See presents three young women from very different backgrounds who meet in 1938 while auditioning to dance in a Chinese night club in San Francisco. They immediately bond together, proclaiming that they will never let a man come between them. As See follows them, however, men, their own personal ambitions, and the drama of war all divide them.  But whatever anger and divisions develop, their lives continue to be intertwined.

For me, this was not the best of See’s books.  Although the women and their lives are fictional, See includes lots of historical facts and the names of well-known entertainers.  I don’t doubt that her facts are accurate; but she never quite brings them to life.  Beginning with the immediate bonds of the three women, too much that takes place is improbable.  Her intent to honor the Chinese and Japanese women who actually did dance in the clubs is to be admired, but I never found myself caring about the characters in the book or in their whirlwind lives as celebrities.  Those who like celebrity stories may find it more interesting than I did.

For those interested in Chinese American women, I suggest Judy Yung’s Unbounded Feet, an excellent historical treatment of the topic.

Thanks to Random house for sending me an ebook version of this book to review.

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