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China Dolls by Lisa See

book cover of China Dolls

I read this because two of my favourite authors (Carolina De Robertis and Isabel Allende) wrote complimentary reviews of it, and I thought I’d really better! As the blurb suggests, it follows the lives of three Chinese-American women working in San Francisco’s nightclubs in the 1930s and 40s: Grace, a young runaway from an abusive father in the Midwest; Ruby, a promiscuous Japanese woman who pretends to be Chinese (with good reason); and Helen, slightly older than the other two and from a rich family that lives in a compound.

It took me a while to get into China Dolls, because the writing style is deceptively simple (especially Grace’s chapters…) and for a while I was wondering if I’d picked up a YA book inadvertently. It certainly begins when the trio of protagonists are rather young (I’d guess that Grace and Ruby are both still teenagers, though probably not Helen) and the narrative has strong “coming of age” themes – trying to work out your place in the world, struggling with your identity, relationships with crappy boys, friendship. Overall, if the conventions of the young adult genre weren’t so prudish (which this book is not!) you could fairly characterise it as that.

That said, the book was really good, and I got completely sucked in. Being “young-adult-like” does not make it bad quality! If you like historical fiction and strong female characters, are interested in the Chinese and Japanese communities in the US, or women there during the Second World War, or how the US entertainment industry used to be, this novel has got you covered.

I do agree with some other reviewers who’ve said this novel may have worked better if it had stuck to Grace’s perspective. Grace is the real protagonist of the three. She’s by far the most likeable, she gets a fair few more POV chapters than either of the other two, and what’s more, even when Ruby and Helen have POV chapters they conveniently never think about anything they happen to be hiding from Grace at the time, ensuring that whatever is unknown to Grace is unknown to the reader – but of course, if she should hide something from the others the reader is in on it. It just seemed strange not to formalise the deal by having the novel expressly from Grace’s perspective, instead of nominally being about all three.

As well, if you’re looking to read a novel about the strength of women’s friendships, this is not really the one to read. What it depicts far more is their fragility. I found it telling that early in the book, the three young women pledge never to let a man get in the way of their friendship, and, well…

I thought the ending was good, if not uplifting. I didn’t think Helen’s self-described motives for dobbing Ruby in to the FBI and then blaming Grace made a hell of a lot of sense though – was it because she was traumatised by her husband and son being murdered by “Japs” in China? or because she was jealous of Ruby and wanted Grace all for herself? if she really wanted Grace to get all the opportunities she claimed, why did she then turn everyone in the nightclub against her to get her fired, before Ruby was even out of the damn internment camp to need lying to?! All in all it just made her seem deeply irrational and selfish, which was out of character. I was also irritated that Grace would forgive Joe and agree to marry him after he’d already broken her heart twice, even if I appreciated the depiction of returned servicemen as traumatised, not cheerful heroes. But I was relieved that she finally cut the poisonous Helen and Ruby (mostly) out of her life, even if it resulted in the awkward conclusion of choosing a man over your female friends being the path to happiness.

I think I’ll have to read more of Lisa See’s books!

★★★★

photo of Jessica Smith is a left-wing feminist who loves animals, books, gaming, and cooking; she’s also very interested in linguistics, history, technology and society.