Explore Booksellers Staff Pick: ‘China Dolls’
by Lisa See
by mar, Time Out Book Critic
Friday, August 8, 2014
We had the distinct pleasure of hosting Lisa See here at Explore Booksellers last week to present and discuss her newest book “China Dolls.” See’s talks are always intriguing and informative and this discussion was certainly no exception. We had a great attendance with a roomful of her devoted fans, myself included, as she shared readings from “China Dolls”and discussed her own creative process for writing. She also talked about how much she loves doing the exhaustive research that her books require.
“China Dolls” is the story of three young Asian-American women who meet in San Francisco in the late 1930s. Adventurous young women, eager to shake off the restrictions and mores that have ruled their lives to this point, they decide to try and find work as “ponies and canaries” (dancers and singers) at Charlie Lo’s new and controversial Forbidden City nightclub just outside of Chinatown.
Grace is from Plain City, Ohio, raised in the heartland of America by an abusive father and unconcerned mother. She was trained from childhood to perform, a blue-ribbon winner at county fairs and local events. Though she is of Chinese descent, she knows little or nothing of her ancestral culture, only the pain and shame of terrible abuse, and to become a performer is her only hope.
Ruby has lived in Long Beach and Hawaii, among other locales, traveling from place to place as her father seeks a living and acceptance that he never seems to find. She is the most charismatic and pragmatic girl in the group. She also has dangerous secrets that she must protect.
Helen is San Francisco born and raised, but she might as well be in the family compound back in China for as much freedom as she has. As the youngest daughter of a successful Chinese businessman and patriarch, her life is severely proscribed, her comings and goings strictly regulated.
The women forge a strong friendship, though one fraught with peril and threatened by betrayal and deceit at every turn. They learn to respect and rely on each other but realize that trust is a precious commodity that must be doled out sparingly.
This was a fantastic time in America – the country was just beginning to enjoy the return to normalcy after the Great Depression and optimism was high. There were harbingers of war and disaster in Europe and the Orient, but those weren’t really our problems after all. See does a wonderful job of creating believable, complex characters and breathing life into their dreams and endeavors. She deftly recreates the San Francisco of the 1930s in tone and nuance, and resurrects the people, the structure, and the atmosphere of a time that was perhaps simpler, though certainly not more innocent than today. Lisa See is a gifted author who has the talent to bring her readers across time and space for a glimpse of an era when everything was possible and if you were a gifted and talented young artist, the sky was the limit.