In Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy, the sequel to her historical fiction novel, Shanghai Girls, an idealistic Chinese American college student runs off to China in the late 1950s after learning that her aunt is really her mother and vice versa. Likewise the man she thought was her father isn’t. She’s grown up in a web of lies. On top of that, her stepfather recently committed suicide as his immigration status was fraudulent and the FBI started asking him questions.
So Joy steals her mother’s savings and heads to find her biological dad in Shanghai. Soon her stepmother Pearl follows her rightly fearing that Joy doesn’t know what she’s getting into.
While the plot sounds like a soap opera, the story is absorbing and well told. The characters are well defined and the plot unfolds credibly. Joy starts off in Shanghai and soon finds her father, an artist who’s volunteered to teach peasants at the Green Dragon Commune to get out of some political trouble.
The novel shifts from Joy’s to Pearl’s narration so readers can see experiences from two different vantage points – the young newcomer and the Overseas Chinese returnee.
I found the narrative a detailed, convincing glimpse into the era of the Great Leap Forward with its deprivations, idealization of the proletariat, petty power struggles and denunciations. See provides a section at the end of the book explaining aspects of the story and their history. Her acknowledgements not only thank the experts, who helped her, but allow the reader to see the extent of her research.
In many ways the book reminded me of Wild Swans, a non-fiction work mainly about the Cultural Revolution. Both show how women of different generations cope during hellish circumstances.
I enjoyed Dreams of Joy, but felt the ending was a little too pat and happy. I think in reality someone readers had come to root for would have suffered greatly. Also, since May, Pearl’s sister was important to Joy, Pearl and Z.G., Joy’s father, it was strange that she figured so little at the end.
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