US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 06-03-2014
400 Pages; $27.00
Date Reviewed: 09-16-2014
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2014
My first thought on seeing 'China Dolls' was: "Not for me." But my contrary instinct kicked in; whenever I have a knee-jerk reaction, I force myself to remember the second word in that phrase. I opened the book and started reading instead of judging it by the cover. It took about one paragraph for me to become immersed in the voice of Grace, the narrator, and that was that. I really did not want to put down the book until I finished it as See carefully explores, over the next 400ish pages, the lives of three women in the midst of World War II America.
Not quite the midst, actually, since America doesn't get in the War until well into the story. But See's ability to capture and corral three very different voices, of three very different women, all involved in one way or another in richly evoked scenes of San Francisco's "oriental" nightclubs is sweet, smart, heartbreaking and disturbing but never less than utterly compelling.
Grace, Helen and Ruby form the trio of voices that take you through tumultuous years of American history, from the Exposition on Treasure Island to the great nightclub years in the city, to Pearl Harbor and the internment camps. The characters of these women are remarkably and entertainingly distinct. Grace is the lynchpin, a Chinese girl brought up bery Ameican who always wanted to dance. Helen is brought up in the confines of a family compound in San Francisco's Chinatown, and Ruby is Japanese, a free spirit ho is understandably passing herself off as Chinese. See does a great job of making each character someone whose perceptions readers look forward to returning to. By virtue of character alone, she turns the book into something of a page-turner.
The plot is surprisingly epic. See starts out in san Francisco and begins the book with a charming exploration of the Chinatown nightclubs. Readers might well have been satisfied had she stayed there, but she follows her characters into darker realms of history. As the world is torn apart, so are the characters, and See does not succumb to the temptation for unearned happiness. 'China Dolls' may seem like a bit of a lark, but See is too smart to let herself or her characters off easily. Charm evolves, and as we are engaged in these stories that reach into our lives, into our world, it's hard to put the book down and harder to forget it.
'China Dolls' starts off and looks to be a rather light book, full of fun and verve, and that certainly is true, for the beginning of the novel at least. But Lisa See's ability to invoke time and place through character enable her to craft not just a chorus of great voices but an entire world. See knows that light is best seen in contrast to darkness.