I am conflicted about Lisa See. I think she excels in writing about places and time periods but isn't so good at creating original characters. The sisters in Shanghai Girls have a relationship that is clichéd and predictable. The dialogue is almost painfully banal. Yet the settings (1930s Shanghai, 1940s and '50s Los Angeles) are great, very evocative and filled with detail.
This book follows the fortunes of sisters Pearl and May, who make their living working in Shanghai as advertising models, or so-called beautiful girls. When their father suffers business reversals he marries them off to the sons of one of his creditors. The girls must leave Shanghai and join their Chinese-American husbands in California, where they will work as low-wage labor for their father-in-law. But before they can leave, the Japanese invade Shanghai, forcing Pearl and May to flee with their mother to Hong Kong and make their way by a circuitous route to the U.S.
Their lives in the U.S. are quite a come-down from their affluent prewar lives. Their husbands are poor, and the sisters work long grinding hours in Chinatown. Is this why See must insert maudlin platitudes about how the bond between sisters is unbreakable, despite all adversity, blah blah blah?
Despite my complaints about the characterizations and relationships, I found this book really interesting and entertaining. I loved reading about the 1940s incarnation of Chinatown in Los Angeles, a neighborhood built not for immigrants but as a tourist attraction and designed by Hollywood set designers. Pearl and May work in this pretend city and therefore are forbidden to wear Western-style clothes, lest they disappoint the white visitors who come for the food and the rickshaw rides.