BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Dreams of JoyAs I look back on my post for Dreams of Joy‘s prequel, Shanghai Girls, I was clearly, quickly aware then that Janet Song was not the best choice for narrator. That I was somehow fooled into listening to Song again is surely a ‘shame on me’-moment. Regardless of the words Song is reading aloud – from describing a mundane street scene to the most horrific tragedy – every word is tinged with near-hysteria. I don’t know how she sustains that ridiculous pitch for almost 16 hours, but half an hour stuck in the ears is exhausting enough. Unlucky for me, my actual book was 2000 miles away … but finish I did.

Shanghai Girls ends with the revelation that Joy is not who she thought she was: Pearl is not her birthmother, May is; she is not Sam’s daughter, but the daughter of a faraway Shanghai artist. As Dreams begins, the year is 1957, Joy is 19, and she’s convinced that her life has been “[a] big fat lie.” Angry at the deception, guilty over what she believes is her part in her father’s suicide, idealistic with what she’s learned about a new Communist China, Joy takes her mother’s hidden savings and flees to Hong Kong. Her intention: to find her birthfather, Z.G., the man who presented her mother and aunt to the world as the dazzling Shanghai girls, the man who both sisters loved for decades … and might even still.

Arriving in Shanghai, Joy is reunited with a shocked Z.G. – still an artist, still privileged, still handsome – and eagerly accompanies him to a countryside commune where he will teach the common masses about art and they will teach him about real life. A desperate Pearl quickly follows Joy to China, returning to her childhood home which still miraculously exists in a once glamorous city she hardly recognizes. The mother/daughter reunion proves bittersweet: Joy insists she will not leave China, and Pearl will never leave without her daughter. Joy returns to the commune to marry an illiterate village boy and embraces her new peasant life. She’s caught in the machinations of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which soon devolves into the catastrophic Great Famine that historians estimate caused some 45 million deaths. Frantic to save her new daughter, Joy’s fight for survival will finally lead her back to her own waiting mother.

I’m not sure if I would have reacted differently had I read Dreams for myself, but Shanghai Girls is definitely the preferred title. As whinge-y as Pearl got then, Joy’s incessant laments were almost enough to permanently hit the ‘off’ button. That said, my contrary tenacity did find rewarding moments with less central characters: the devastating stories of village pariahs, Yong and Kumei, and the moment Kumei’s young son shouts “Baba!” for the first time, the audacity of Pearl’s mother’s best friend Madame Hu, the timeless devotion of the professorial Dun, and the unwavering affection beneath the gruff exterior of aging Director Cook.

I have, for now, learned that See’s novels deserve only a direct read … no narrating compromises. I shudder to realize that I have Peony in Love already iPod-loaded, again with the wrong narrator – I’m taking that as an unmistakable reminder to return to the page!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2011

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