China Dolls by Lisa See

The author of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and Shanghai Girls has garnered international acclaim for her great skill at rendering the intricate relationships of women and the complex meeting of history and fate. Now comes Lisa See’s highly anticipated new novel, China Dolls.

It’s 1938 in San Francisco: a world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

My Thoughts

I’m not much for historical fiction of any kind. I decided to read this one because all the reviews I read were pretty good and it was time for something different to read. I’m very glad I picked this book up! It was very good. It was the first book by Lisa See I’ve read and I loved it. I’ve even recommended it in my book club to people to read for fun.

China Dolls is about three young Chinese women, Grace, Helen, and Ruby who are trying to make it in show business. They are all different but alike at the same time. Grace is from an abusive background- her father used to beat her everyday. Helen is from a traditional Chinese family where women are not worth anything, only made to have babies and do as their fathers, and eventually husband, tell them to. Ruby, is Japanese, but passes for Chinese to get work. Grace’s big dream is to be famous- a famous dancer. She and Helen both get the chance when they land a job as dancers. Ruby doesn’t get the job at the same place but eventually finds a job, after having many random jobs. The 3 women are best friends, never too far from one another. Ruby and Grace even live together. Helen sets Grace up with her brother hoping one day Grace will be her sister in law and live in the family compound with her and the rest of the women.

In the time the book is set, there is war brewing. Japan drops a bomb on Hawaii and all hell breaks lose. Anyone who even remotely may be thought to be Japanese is taken to a concentration camp. Ruby passes for a while as Chinese but then out of no where these men in uniforms come and take her away. She’s in the concentration camp for a while. Grace never writes but Helen does. Grace is accused of turning Ruby in so Grace can be the star and become famous. But Grace denies betraying Ruby.

Right away, I got this kind of sense about Helen, that she’s not a good person. She wants out of her strict Chinese home but knows nothing else except what’s been drilled into her from birth- women are nothing. As the story progresses, Helen’s whole story comes out and you learn why she is the way she is. Her husband was killed and so was her baby, leaving her to hope that her family would take her back, and they did only to shun her. Helen doesn’t deserve pity for betraying Ruby (another thing you learn is that Helen HATES the Japanese and she’s been holding out on how much she dislikes Ruby from the beginning). Helen lets Grace take the blame for turning Ruby in because she hopes that Grace will then depend on her for friendship. Helen is a bit of a psycho.

Ruby and Grace are both alike in the fact they both LOVE the entertainment world and will do anything to anyone to get to the top. Even though they start out as best friends, they certainly do not stay that way. And it’s because of Helen- Helen feeding them lies about each other so she looks the best and they depend on her. Even when Helen gets pregnant by a white man she still is in control. It’s crazy! But it makes sense. Grace is very naive and doesn’t really know the world. She finds out the hard way, a lot. Especially about love. Gosh, poor Grace. Ruby is not naive, she’s been around the block a time or two- which you understand right away. And then there’s Helen- who has life experience in the worst way possible.

I read some reviews that hated this book. But really, this is a great book. I highly recommend it if you want something different to read or just want something good to read.

5 out of 5 stars!


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