Emotionally shanghai-ed by Shanghai Girls

I guess I can’t handle tragedy.

I just finished Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, and frankly, I’m glad to have it over with. If I had to identify one sentence that pretty much summed up the central theme of the book, it would be this: “When we’re packing, Yen-yen says she’s tired. She sits down on the couch in the main room and dies.” Yup, she sits down and dies. Just like that.

Shanghai Girls is a fortunately/unfortunately story, except without any of the fortunately parts.

If you hadn’t already guessed, here’s the official spoiler warning. Ready?

In this story…

Families lose it all. Brides are sold. Rickshaws are stolen. Bombs drop. A head and not a few limbs are severed. People step over dead babies in the street (and that’s during the good times, before the bombs). Enemies invade. Women are attacked, killed. Refugees flee, drown. Immigrants are detained, and while detained one delivers a baby in a shower stall. One pregnancy is faked. Another ends in the death of a baby and the near death of her mother. The family store burns down not once but twice. The dull-witted guy in the story becomes a bed-ridden invalid to boot (diagnosed with “the soft-bone disease,” whatever that is). Neighbors betray neighbors. A sister betrays her sister, leading to the suicide of the only remotely well-grounded individual in the story. Then the sisters go through some serious and really unresolved victim-blaming. By the end of the book, one character has fled to communist China in search of a better life, and her passport-less mother flees after her, counting on deportation as her one way ticket there.

Geeez. In the words of Billy Crystal, why don’t you just give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?

I don’t need feel-good stories, but this book was ridiculous. I know that life can be bad, and that life in war is surely worse. But this story is relentless. The only bright spot was the main character’s finding of the Christian faith, which you would have missed if you weren’t paying attention or would have questioned as half-hearted if you were paying attention.

I know that people love this book. I wish I was one of them.

I remember reading that the European title of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was Men Who Hate Women. Apt, right? The real title of Shanghai Girls should be How the Slow Boat from China Made Two Powerless Girls Hopeless As Well. I wish I hadn’t gone along with them.

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In love with “Peony”? Not so much

Back in the 90’s I saw a movie called Truly Madly Deeply, which starred a pre-Professor Snape Alan Rickman as the main female character’s boyfriend. The bad news: the boyfriend died. The good news: the boyfriend returned! The really bad news: the dead boyfriend brought along all of his sad, cold, bored, dead buddies, who just wanted to hang out in the girlfriend’s apartment watching videos.

Except in soap operas and perhaps on Lost, when it comes to dead characters, even if they return as ghosts, you know that they’re pretty much still dead and, slacker ghost buddies or not, that they are not good candidates for long term relationships. Lisa See’s book Peony in Love covers the subject of ghost love against the backdrop of seventeenth century China, and, let me tell you, when it comes to life or death in the environment See portrays, I’m thinking that, given a choice, life and death come out in a (pardon me here) dead heat.

I’ll try not to spoil the story too much, but on the side of life, you’ve got women’s not-so-nice lot, in the form of foot binding, restriction of movement, segregation from men, arranged marriage, the overvaluing of male children and devaluing of female, rampant anorexia, ridiculously oppressive superstition about absolutely everything, and even the expectation that suicide beats the soiling and shame associated with rape. On the death side, you’ve got eternal wandering, eternal hunger, dependence on the neglectful living for a proper place in the afterlife, continuing competition and jealousies with the rest of the dead, and the very romantic practice of ghost marriage with a straw dummy as the stand-in for the already dead bride (lovely!).

In the book, See is giving us a picture of a culture otherwise unfamiliar to us Westerners. I get that. What I don’t get is why See, in an otherwise incredibly inventive story, continually returns to the themes of female infighting, oppression against women perpetrated by other women, and romantic love as so over-arching and women so prone to lovesickness, that being in love could be a lifetime obsession or a deadly proposition. She throws some bones to women, but they’re not enough to make us readers feel like she wants us to do more than just contextualize the practices she’s described and, in doing so, dismiss our repulsion of them.

In an interview about the novel, she says, “My point here is that other countries and cultures have different belief systems. One isn’t right and the other wrong…” Institutionalized sexism and racism are still wrong, no matter what a culture’s beliefs may be. The character of Peony in Peony In Love grew in a lot of ways over the course of the novel, but, for me, she fell somewhat short of that realization.