Title: China Dolls
Author: Lisa See
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: 6-3-2014
Genre: Adult, Historical Fiction
Source: ARC kindly provided in exchange for honest review
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?
When I received an unsolicited copy of China Dolls to review from Random House after adding it to my TBR shelf on Goodreads, I was so excited! I’d never read anything by this author before, but I’ve heard of her bestseller Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and — of course — I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t read many novels with non-white characters, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but was still really looking forward to reading this novel about three Asian girls who became friends while living in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 1940s.
My favorite part of this novel was how thoroughly the relationships between the three women were explored. The book alternated chapters between the three first-person perspectives of Ruby, Helen, and Grace. I thought it was strange, though, that the chapters didn’t follow a set pattern, like is normally done with this type of narration — sometimes two chapters from the same character would be back-to-back! I also thought that, while Ruby’s voice was very distinct, I had a some trouble telling Helen and Grace’s perspectives apart. Sometimes I’d have to flip back to the beginning of the chapter just to double-check which one of them I was reading about. But after a while, I got more used to the style and it was easier to read.
But I’m glad that the book was separated like it was, because the dynamics between the three of them were so interesting. Friendships are a tricky business, especially with women, and especially when there’s three women involved. It seemed like their friendship was an ever-shifting pyramid vs. three friends linked hand-to-hand in perfect equality. Sometimes Ruby was on top, sometimes Helen, and sometimes Grace. Or sometimes one was on the “outside” while the other two were much closer. The author just did such a good job of recreating this type of friendship; I was very impressed.
I also really enjoyed reading about the historical aspects of this novel. China Dolls spans the ten years between 1938 and 1948. I really appreciated that this book was mostly centered around WWII, but took place in the United States, which is very rare to read about. And the fact that it was about Asian culture and how the Chinese and Japanese were affected because of the war, especially by Pearl Harbor and the Pacific theatre, was so interesting to read about. Even though I knew some bare-bones information about how the US government and its citizens treated the Japanese, and other Asians, during this time period, it was a whole other thing to get to experience it first-hand through Ruby, Helen, and Grace. I know that they weren’t real people, but the writing felt so realistic that it was almost like they were!
But although there are lots of good things to say about this book, one thing that I really didn’t enjoy was how slow-starting this book was. It wasn’t until half way through the book that I became truly interested in what was happening. It was almost a struggle to make it that far! Even though I thought the word flow was good and the dialogue and characters were so on-point, I had trouble maintaining my interest in the book. Nothing was really happening, and it wasn’t until the advent of Pearl Harbor three years after the book’s starting point that it finally started to pick up. Once it got to that point, I had a hard time putting it down, but I might not have even gotten that far if it wasn’t for the fact that this was a review book, so I felt obligated to continue.
Ultimately, though, I would definitely recommend this book to people who are interested in reading about how WWII affected the Japanese in the US, and the intricacies of Asian culture during this time period. It’s also a very good study of female friendships and there’s even a little bit of romance! As long as you don’t mind some slow going at the beginning of the book, this is a great novel that I’m so happy I got the chance to read.