August 19th, 2009

A Triple Book Review: Shanghai Girls, Beautiful as Yesterday, and Short Girls

A Review of Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls (Random House, 2009) and Fan Wu’s Beautiful as Yesterday (Atria Books, 2009) and Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls (Viking Adult, 2009)


Three Tales of Asian American Sisterhoods

 I am reviewing Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, Fan Wu’s Beautiful as Yesterday, and Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls, together because they work quite well in terms of their content, essentially novels that focus on the relationship between two sister-characters.  The “girls” of See’s novel are Pearl and May, beautiful and rather well-situated young women in 1930s Shanghai.  Living in a family with more liberal values, they live a cosmopolitan lifestyle and are able even to earn money for their various escapades, which includes nights out on the town with foreigners.  In this respect, See’s work immediately places a modernist cast on these girls, but when misfortune befalls their family due to the financial improprieties of their father, Pearl and May are forced into challenging positions.  Of course, like Janice Y.K. Lee’s recent novel, The Piano Teacher, we know we are in dangerous territory if we are anywhere on the Chinese mainland area during the 1930s with Japanese imperial aggression just around the corner.  When Pearl and May must find a way to escape China, given all if its turmoil, and enter into arranged marriages they thought they had escaped.  The harrowing journey finally leaves them in a limbo space while at Angel Island, which has of course been the site of an Asian American Studies renaissance.  In this respect, the novel treads essential historical territory and the questions that both sisters endure are particularly instructive of the inane immigration policies that the United States engaged in the period of the “yellow peril.”  Since See’s first publication, she hasn’t really set much of her work in the United States, so Shanghai Girls is quite anomalous in that respect.  Once the women settle into their new lives with their “arranged” husbands, they make due with what they can, May, finding herself caught up in Hollywood glamour, while Pearl struggles to raise a family that she cannot claim wholly or even biologically her own.  The novel concludes with a cliffhanger and it wasn’t with much surprise that I discovered that See is working on a sequel.  The concluding arc of the novel contemplates questions of assimilation and alternative kinships that were quite refreshing to see and offer much to problematize the notion of Asian American nuclear families.  The focus though is always on Pearl and May and their unbreakable friendship.  While May seems to be the more vivacious and passionate of the pair, Pearl is more traditional and toned down.  In this regard, I find it interesting this move to explore horizontal kinship models rather than the mother-daughter trope that was more dominant in the 90s.  See is a gifted storyteller and it is clear there was much research done to recreate what the historical accuracies of the mid-century, so although the plot does not necessarily always rely upon earth-shattering developments, the readers are carried through in sure form.  


Fan Wu’s Beautiful as Yesterday is set in the contemporary moment, centering on the lives of two sisters, Mary and Ingrid, and their mother, Fenglan.  Mary and Ingrid both grew up in China, but Mary immigrates to the United States as a result of her interest in democracy and philosophy and later helps her sister Ingrid to immigrate as well.  Fenglan remains in China, working in a local factory.  The novel begins when Mary and Ingrid are both in their thirties.  Like the sisterly dynamics found in See’s novel, Mary might be the analog to pearl, while Ingrid might be the analog to May.  When the novel opens, Mary is living in Silicon Valley, married to a Chinese American technical specialist named Bob; they have one son, named Alex.  While everything might seem picture perfect, as they lived an upper middle class existence with a beautiful home, financial security and a growing family, all is not as it seems.  In this regard, much of the suburban ennui that say pervades a novel like Chang-rae Lee’s Aloft can be found here, with Mary still struggling to find her identity.  Ingrid, much to Mary’s dismay, doesn’t seem to have her life pinned down either, as evidenced by a constant string of boyfriends and odd jobs translating books to pay the bills.  Ingrid’s aspirations take her to New York City for a time, and it is clear from her interactions with others that she longs for a more liberating life as a creative rather than as a functionalist interpreter.  The predicament of Fenglan is that as the mother of both Mary and Ingrid, she is living along in China and has few others to call family, so when the opportunity presents itself to travel to the United States to see both of them, she takes it.  The complications increase because Mary had hoped that this visit would be more permanent as she had expected her mother to live with her and her husband and child eventually.  Bob seems to be much more resistant to this, demonstrating a culturally specific divide that Wu seems to be developing that places Chinese American and Chinese transnationals occasionally at odds with each other.  Wu complicates the plot by adding a couple of twists, which I will not reveal here, but much like See’s novel, the narrative is not compelled through its dynamism.  Where See’s book is clearly more historically invested, Wu’s work seems more in line as a domestically focused drama, where the problems of the everyday are encountered.  There is a clear feminist politic in both works.  For Wu, much of the contouring of the Chinese transnational experience is evidenced by the careful attention to the social conditions that have embroiled China within that last five decades.  As such, the cultural revolution and the Tiananmen Square Massacre both loom large as ordering events for many of the characters.  These seemingly more minor background details serve to illuminate Wu’s novel from a more complex frame. 


Of the three novels, Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls is perhaps the “black sheep” of the bunch in the sense that it is much more light-hearted and funny than the previous two, which for the most part, stick to a realist tradition.  There is something else at work in Nguyen’s novel, where two Vietnamese American sisters, Van and Linny, struggle to find their identities growing up in the suburban Midwest, that of Michigan.  What is interesting is that I know of no other Asian American novel that is set extensively in Michigan and so we are already on some original geographical terrain here.  The novel is full of quirky characters, my favorite of which is Van and Linny’s father Dinh Luong who believes himself to be an inventor of great talent.  Whether or not this is actually the case remains to be seen over the course of the narrative, but because the entire family has always been challenged by their slight stature, he has taken it upon himself to devise various contraptions that might improve their existence.  Exemplary of Nguyen’s wicked sense of humor is that Dinh names one such contraption the “Luong Arm,” able to get those hard to reach items like that top shelf book that you would have to otherwise use a stool to be able to retrieve.  Of course, the pun on “Luong Arm,” and the many other devices including the “Luong Eye,” make for an already hilarious narrative premise.  However, the central concern of the book is the tensions that exist between Van and Linny.  Like Wu’s Beautiful as Yesterday and See’s Shanghai Girls, there is the more headstrong, passionate sister (in this case Linny) and the more studious, dependable one (in this case Van).  The plot is mainly catalyzed around the “mystery” that opens the chapter, related to Van’s failing marriage with her fourth generation Chinese American husband, Miles.  What was wrong with Van and Miles’s relationship and how did the seemingly picture perfect life that Van had constructed for herself all go wrong?  For Linny, her life has just begun to achieve its sense of direction when an affair could jeopardize her most stable and most promising job.  Working for a prepared foods business, she ends up in an affair with the husband of one of the customers, Pren, who purchases for at the business run by Linny’s boss, Barbara.  While these two separate lives do not seem to intersect, we know fireworks are in store when Van and Linny’s dad announces that he’s having a party as he finally decided to claim full American citizenship, moving from beyond the refugee status he had held for so long.  With this basic recipe in play, Nguyen’s Short Girls is not short for entertainment.  The novel relies heavily on character studies to root readerly interest and fortunately Van and Linny and especially Dinh are such winning characters we can’t help but hope for their collective best. 


As a set of books, I can’t help but thinking about the long tradition of Asian American women’s writers and it is of course so wonderful to be in the midst of such a productive period for such a group.  What is interesting in terms these books is that collective understanding promoted by each author of a larger sense of cultural and racial history.  The ability to twine together these social contexts amidst these various plots continues to show the fecund landscape that is Asian American cultural production. 


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