Author: Lisa See
Publication Date: January 2014
Synopsis from Goodreads:
In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco’s exclusive “Oriental” nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?
I’ve been a huge fan of Lisa See for years. I fell in love with her writing with Snowflower and the Secret Fan. I was excited to read her latest story and I zoomed through this one in a day and a half! China Dolls is set in the years leading up to and during World War Two. It moves between the perspectives of three young women: Helen, Grace, and Ruby. Each girl is dealing with her own demons and it’s these demons that both bring them together in friendship, and tear them apart in hatred.
Helen, Grace, and Ruby’s story is one of lifetime friendship. They endure terrible things together and they are cruel to one another. But they also work to support one another, to help each other out in times of difficulty, and to establish their careers together. In this story, See reveals the nasty side of human nature. She demonstrates how awful people can be to others, even friends, when ambition and jealousy get in the way. I actually found myself quite shocked at the things that Helen and Ruby did and said about Grace when her natural talent, her years of training, and her devotion as a friend granted her greater success. I found their actions very off-putting and I couldn’t quite understand how they came to be such lifelong friends. Together they survive poverty, racism, war, cultural expectations, and rejection.
In the face of all this cruelty, See also reveals the capacity of friends to forgive and to love. Grace is an incredibly understanding friend. She is able to move past the injustices and the wrongs done to her. She really is the bigger person throughout this story. I connected and sympathized with Grace the most. She is hard-working and driven to succeed although she is often treated unfairly. She doesn’t let the action of others stop her from achieving her dreams and escaping her past.
Overall, another great book from Lisa See. Exploring the bonds of friendship, the struggle to find love, and the sacrifices made to achieve success, China Dolls is an exciting and tragic story of trying to make it in America at a time when being different is not always beneficial and working hard does not ensure that you’ll reach your goals.