I have been a fan of Lisa See since On Gold Mountain, so I was excited to receive a review copy of China Dolls before the book came out last year. Of course my enthusiasm failed to translate into a prompt reading and review of the book, but what can you do? See’s career took off with On Gold Mountain, the fictionalized history of her own pioneering mixed-race Chinese-American family. Her novels, generally historical fiction either set in China or dealing with Chinese-Americans, tend to focus on forgotten or ignored bits of history from a feminine point of view. In these historical and cultural contexts, she explores themes of ethnic and female identity, and relationships among women. China Dolls is a story about Asian women in American show business in the early part of the 20th century.
See’s novels are always meticulously researched; her novels have an authenticity that few English-speaking authors are able to achieve when writing about Asian women (just think of James Clavell’s [bless his heart] male fantasies masquerading as characters in otherwise excellent stories). What I like best about See’s writing though, is its transparency. She sucks me in to her stories so completely that I forget I am reading words on a page.
China Dolls follows three women through the ups and downs of their careers and relationships, beginning in 1938. In the opening pages we meet Grace, a midwestern girl fleeing an abusive father on a Greyhound headed to California. Her voice is so familiar it comes as a shock when it’s revealed that she is Chinese. Grace comes from a town “so small it didn’t have a Chinese restaurant” and the only Chinese people she’s ever seen are her parents, who have worked at assimilation her whole life.
Soon she is joined by Helen, a young woman from a wealthy family who has been raised traditionally and lived in China and San Francisco’s Chinatown. Hers is the voice that helps the reader understand just what it meant for a young Asian (then called Oriental) woman to pursue a career at all, let alone a career in show business.
The third point in their triangle is the brazen, jazzy Ruby, who talks like Mae West and walks her talk.
Sometimes heart-friends, sometimes frenemies, these three women illustrate all the glamour and squalor of show business as well as the additional barriers that Asians faced in all aspects of their lives.
See’s characters lived in times and places that overlap with figures in my own family history (family legend attributes some early Hollywood stunt work to a grandfather and great aunt), which gives the story added resonance for me, but the settings are drawn clearly enough for any reader to inhabit them.
There are some authors you can just trust. When I read a Lisa See book, I know that there will be Chinese women dealing with major historical events in their own limited sphere of influence. I know that there will be intense friendship and betrayal. But amidst the drama, the characters will be flesh and blood; there will be no exoticism. The historical period, the location, even the form (some of her novels include supernatural elements) may vary, but the quality never does.