Living in relative privilege, we first meet sisters Pearl and May Chin in Shanghai in 1937 as they are preparing for evening out to sit and be painted for yet another beautiful-girls calendar. The Chin sisters are different in both looks and temperament, but together they have been the faces for many products’ beautiful-girl calendars that hang in homes across China.
It is only a short time later that the world these girls know is forever changed in so many ways. Upon returning from a late night of posing then partying they learn that their father, to pay off his previously unknown gambling debts, has “sold” them as wives to two brothers who live in the United States. While this alone might be too much to bear for these girls who planned to marry for love, they soon find out that what lies ahead is so much worse.
We see Shanghai bombed by the Japanese, and follow the girls as they attempt to make their way out of Shanghai. A trip that will scar them both in separate ways.
Eventually, the Chin sisters make it to the United States, only to be held for months in a detention center on Angel Island, off of San Francisco, until they are finally cleared through immigration to meet their husbands and rebuild their lives in Los Angeles.
I don’t want to write too much else on the plot as I don’t want to give anything away. What I have above is really only about the first third of the book, and contains even more drama than I have noted here.
As with author Lisa See’s other novels (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love) this book is filled with such descriptive passages and gripping emotional turmoil that I found it hard to put the book down. It also provided me with a brief history of Chinese immigration during and after WWII that I previously didn’t know much about.
This book is certainly not light-hearted or easy fare, but is a very nice piece of story telling.
Publisher: Random House