Author: Lisa See
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Star Rating (out of 5): ****
For: Fans of Amy Tan, History, Mother/Daughter Relationships
Reading Around the World: China
Joy is shocked and angered when she learns that the woman she has always called mother is really her aunt, and the woman she has known as aunt is her birth mother. Feeling betrayed by their deception and guilt-ridden over her adoptive father’s suicide, she decides on a whim to travel to China to find her birth father. It is 1957, and Joy has heard at her communist club at college about the great work Chairman Mao is doing to build the People’s Republic of China. She is sure that, in joining the revolutionary struggle and selflessly serving the people, she will finally find her place in the world. Not until her U.S. passport is taken from her in Shanghai does it occur to her that entering China may be much simpler than leaving it.
Joy quickly finds her birth father, a famous artist named Z.G. who never knew she existed. Although he is stunned by her sudden arrival in his life, Z.G. agrees to take her with him to the countryside, where he has been assigned to teach art to the peasants. Joy is thrilled to be participating in one of Mao’s visionary ideas for China, and in her idealism blindly misses Z.G.’s ironic hints that his assignment may be motivated by more dangerous reasons than Joy realizes.
When Joy’s adoptive mother, Pearl, learns that Joy has gone to China, she is instantly terrified for her daughter. Pushing down memories of her own horrifying flight out of China years ago, she travels back, determined to find Joy and bring her home safely. But tracking down one young woman in a country of millions is not easy, particularly with Red China’s fist tightening around travel, commerce, and the very minds of the people.
Reading this book, I found myself comparing it to a boulder rolling down a hill faster and faster. Much of the “action” of the story is contained in the last quarter or so of the book, as See slowly unveils the decaying heart of the seemingly glorious ideas that motivated Chinese communism. The first half of the book may seem slightly slow and idealistic, but I think part of the book’s brilliance lies in the way the motion of the story mirrors the way the idealistic and even noble ideas of communism spiraled into such an evil and devastating stranglehold on the nation.
It is estimated that 45 million people died in the famine that was caused largely by Mao’s obsessive desire to surpass the rest of the world, particularly the “American imperialists.” The ways the people were forced to work toward this goal are almost unbelievable: things such as mixing ground glass into the soil as “fertilizer” or bringing all the metal they owned (right down to their cooking utensils and door hinges) to be melted into “steel.” And the descriptions of the desperate actions taken by starving families are both heartbreaking and incredibly disturbing.
This is a sequel of sorts to See’s Shanghai Girls, which tells the story of Joy’s aunt and mother. I have not read Shanghai Girls, but was still able to follow the story, although I’m sure I would have caught more nuances if I had read the first book. See does a great job of showing the tug-a-war-dance that mother/daughter relationships often have to stumble through as daughters grow to independence, and also explores the tangle that different types of loves can cause in our hearts. Unfortunately, there is some extra-marital sex in the story, but it is not graphic.
One of the most chilling parts of the book is a very brief moment where Joy remembers how she once wondered why the Germans did not simply revolt against Nazism, and realizes that she now understands. I have wondered the same thing when reading about Nazism and Communism, and I appreciated how the book used subtle storytelling rather than lecturing to illustrate the motion of these ideals, and also challenged me to think about the social and political ideas that are thrown at us today. I believe our society knows very little about how these evils actually took over their countries, yet it is often said that “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” What was perhaps even more chilling to me than reading about the atrocities committed in the name of progress and equality was recognizing some of the very same attitudes in our American culture today. Definitely a story worth a read and a good thinking over.