China Dolls, Lisa See
Published June 3rd 2014 by Random House
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 fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 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?
Grace, Helen and Ruby meet as they’re all auditioning as dancers in a Chinese club in San Francisco. These are great paying jobs for women at the time-especially for Chinese women, but this is not innocent dancing and there’s also a price they pay for that. Eventually they leave San Francisco and start traveling the country with other Chinese entertainers or those passing as Chinese due to the times. I had never heard of the “Chop Suey Circuit” of Asian entertainers traveling the United States so the stories were fascinating to me. This was a shocking read from a 2014 perspective of the racism that was present at all levels and the way that it was just part of these girls’ daily lives. Unfortunately these characters didn’t really come to life for me the way that I felt about See’s previous work such as in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
Ruby, Grace and Helen’s lives become deeply intertwined and they depend heavily on each other. Despite that dependence the interactions between them just felt forced to me at times. They professed to be such true friends, but really were frenemies. Maybe that’s just show business? Reading about false friendships can be fun and all-but this wasn’t supposed to be that kind of book. I felt like I could see what was coming far ahead of time-the great reveals really weren’t any kind of revelation for me. If See had put as much into her characters as she did into the historical setting this would have been an amazing book.
Thank you Random House and edelweiss for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.