Runs in the Family: Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

“We all look around until we come to my mother, who has not said a word since the men entered our home. I see hardness in her I’ve never seen before. Maybe we’re all like that with our mothers. They seem ordinary until one day they’re extraordinary.” (p. 58)

                       courtesy of

Shanghai Girls reminds me of great barbecue. You want one more piece. The meat is great, and you wonder what the cook put in the sauce. The book reads great, but if you’re not ready for a dark non-stop journey, it will not settle well in your system.

I’ve read Peony in Love and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Lisa See remains one of my favorite authors. Shanghai Girls takes a new, twisted road into the world of arranged marriage, a gang, bombs, Japanese invasion and war crimes, racism, illegal immigration, and the fear of communism. At the heart of the book rests the relationship between two sisters, Pearl and May.

For the purpose today’s post, I chose to focus on the family theme. See says she likes to write about the relationships between mothers and daughters and sisters. While I do not have a sister, I understand the family correlation. See says sisters must rely on each other, but they also know where to stick the knife.

“I’ve loved my sister from the moment she was born, but for too long I’ve been like a moon spinning around her entrancing planet. Now I whirl away as the anger of a lifetime boils out of me.” (p. 296)

The above quote extends to all family rivalries and some lifelong friendships. The book spoke to me on a personal and storytelling level. When I read books, I study what the author does, and See composes beautiful descriptions. She also puts as much feeling into the relationship between May and Pearl as possible. The story is a love story: caring, laughter, jealously, heroism, and forgiveness.

Pearl envies May’s beauty and career. May envies the fact Pearl loves her husband and is respected for her brain. Jealousies heat up in their journey, but ultimately, they try to save each other. They share a secret no one can know.

I could not put the book down.

There are two weaknesses in the book. The first, and I’ve read this in other reviews also, is the book ends too fast. See races to the end. The action is still strong, but that brings me to the next point.

 courtesy of

When you read a book full of action whether it is suspense, horror, emotional impact, or war; I believe the reader deserves a short break from Action Point A to Action Point B. It might be a good place to build a character or show a little back story. I am not saying drag the story out, but just like a good movie, give the reader a chance to breathe. Shanghai Girls lacked recovery time.

As I said, the book reached me on a personal level. I have a close extended family. People know each other’s business before anyone understands what is happening. In the process, words are thrown out like tacs in the road.

In reaction to the book and recent events, I wrote this sappy poem. Family is a love story; more like a love story that evolves from an arranged marriage. In the end, life is happier than in Shanghai Girls.


I wanted to say, “thank you” for the recipe book you gave to me

in Christmas 2010 to let you know I made the buttermilk chocolate brownies.

It came from a recipe within the book that never collects dust,

but pride or sorrow stepped in to say words as heartless

as a priest who kicks a homeless man into the snow.



I made you a layered nacho dip without onions you despise,

because I wanted to say, “I love you” in my creative way.

But, you were in no mood to consider love,

or the things others had to say.



Do not worry for I never forget who stood by

when my first marriage broke apart.

I know who gave my son his special blanket;

gave me a piece of the Berlin Wall;

and who took care of me in Puerto Rico.



But, you were in no mood to hear gratitude.

You chose to wipe out good feelings by

kicking us in the gut with words sharp, made to sting.

I wanted to say, “I love you,” yet “You’re a mean mom,”

and “shut up” were the only words you could say to me.


7 thoughts on “Runs in the Family: Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls

  1. I like the poem. I like poems where things are not straight forward, and you have to stop and consider.

    Your comment about action is interesting. The project I am working on contains action and I’m trying to pace it at the right times. I think I pretty much have it right first time, although I haven’t written it yet. On the story plan it seems right. I’m just trying to layer a few things and make sure I have the right things down to include in the first 50 pages. Hopefully I can write it as planned. There is enough room to be creative around the plan so long as I don’t go too far off course.

    1. Thank you, Elliot. I am glad you liked the poem.

      I watched a movie this morning, old Hollywood, called “The Reckless Moment.” It is a suspense/ thriller. But, you talk about action, it had me on the edge my seat the entire time.

      Writing action is tricky, so is comedy and romance, but action presents the real challenge of stepping into someone else’s shoes. See did an amazing job writing the action sequences in the book. You could picture human remains everywhere after the Japanese bombs on Shanghai.

      Do you find yourself questioning what goes where in your novel? I know you’ll find a pace that suits you as a writer. What is your novel about?

      1. When I write my action sequences, I think I shall have a few books I like which have action in them, around. Then I can look up the level of information, and the pacing, and so forth. Mostly it is logical, but there is some technique involved in how much information to put across and when.

        Without going into much detail, this novel is the fantasy one I might have previously mentioned, a little multi dimensional not too far removed from Phillip Pullman’s Dark materials. But the story isn’t about the dimension stuff, that is one facet of it. It isn’t a route home story either, but there is an element of searching about it. Also some ideas about how cultures and technology might have developed in a different way. I’m trying to keep it relatively grounded and as “real” as is possible, I suppose in the same way that the Game of Thrones books do with their fantasy elements like Dragons.

        It was odd in the sense that I had an idea so I jotted down the notes, Then I thought if this and this happened, well that gives me this journey, this lets me explore this area and so on. Fairly quickly the story opened up and I just had to layer in some more characters and work out some more of the details, e.g. if there is a challenge, what sort of challenge is it, and why. So as the plot seemed to work itself out easily enough, the what goes where came hand in hand with it. It has surprised me how it has all come together so easily, this whole story, and characters. Especially as it is not an area I’ve written about before (although lots of authors explored an unusual idea that turned into a whole big thing, and led to their writing careers).

        I’m waffling on a bit here (and doing the idea justice) but now I need to do the actual writing justice to all the other work, and a part of that is organising the first few chapters so you get to know the key characters, the world, and what is at stake, etc.

      2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I remember you writing about Game of Thrones on your blog. You write great book reviews, and put thought into your blogs. Your book sounds the same. It is so easy to go on that roadmap trip of all the possibilities. You never want it to end sometimes.

        Thank you so much for your comment!

      3. it just occurred to me that I refer to it a lot as fantasy, but I suppose it is a little sci-fi as well. That provides the context rather than forefront on the plot.

  2. BECCA, your blogs are great. Just wanted to let you know that I finally got a contract to publish my novel, The Spectrum Conspiracy. I would consider it quite an honor if you reviewed my novel someday… Any way I wanted to ask if I could get the inside scoop on how to set up a blog site to market my writing?
    Craig Faris

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