After having thrilled to See’s novel “Snowflower and the Secret Fan,” I was rather disappointed by her next novel Shanghai Girls. I felt the story was emotionally shallow and at the same time melodramatic, and while the history of Shanghai is interesting, it is stagnant, told through the eyes of two women who never really break from their spoiled past and grow up and see the world as it has evolved.
Now See has penned a sequel to Shanghai Girls, called Dreams of Joy. It is better than its predecessor but still left me somewhat flat and uninvolved. In Shanghai Girls, well-off sisters Pearl and May barely escape the Communist Revolution in China and flee to the U.S. with little more than Joy, the baby May was pregnant with from a prominent artist back in China. They make a life for themselves in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, but it is not tremendously interesting and they are less than appealing as main characters. At the end of the book, things quickly and painfully conclude with a suicide and 18-year-old Joy’s sense of betrayal by her family. She sneaks into Communist China, now undergoing its 1950s Great Leap Forward, determined to hunt down her artist father and to join the ongoing Maoist revolution.
Dreams of Joy begins where Shanghai Girls leaves off, with Pearl returning to the country she had vowed to turn her back on in pursuit of her willful and idealistic daughter. Pearl becomes a much more interesting character in this sequel, while May remains behind in the US and is viewed primarily through her letters and Pearl’s own reminiscences. Joy meets her handsome, romantic, artist father but is blind to the fact that he is being forced to play out a role in order to survive Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She ends up living in a small village, married to a man who is not what he had seemed, and bearing a child just as the villagers begin to starve to death under Mao’s insane dictums. Pearl ends up in Shanghai, sharing her looted family mansion with former servants and squatters and becoming a garbage collector to survive while waiting for Joy to come to her senses. The spoiled Joy, meanwhile, is rapidly shedding her ideals about Maoist China and is forced to grow up in a hurry to keep herself and her baby alive.
While the picture of Communist China that See paints for us is as brutal as one can imagine, her writing has taken on the quality of what I would call “reverse propaganda,” more intent on painting the horrors of the Great Leap Forward than in giving us a more sensitive and profound portrayal as in “Snowflower.” The ending of Dreams of Joy is a little too sweet, a little too neat, a little too Hollywood-ish. Not bad but not great either.