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First Page Appraisal: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Everyone knows not to judge a book by its cover, but we think the first page should be fair game. Today we’re reading the first page of Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, which is excerpted after the jump by permission of Random House Group. Read on to find out if this latest novel measures up to See’s previous best-sellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love.

“Our daughter looks like a South China peasant with those red cheeks,” my father complains, pointedly ignoring the soup before him. “Can’t you do something about them?”

Mama stares at Baba, but what can she say? My face is pretty enough- some might even say lovely-but not as luminescent as the pearl I’m named for. I tend to blush easily. Beyond that, my cheeks capture the sun. When I turned five, my mother began rubbing my face and arms with pearl creams, and mixing ground pearls into my morning jook-rice porridge-hoping the white essence would permeate my skin. It hasn’t worked. Now my cheeks burn red-exactly what my father hates. I shrink down into my chair. I always slump when I’m near him, but I slump even more on those occasions when Baba takes his eyes off my sister to look at me. I’m taller than my father, which he loathes. We live in Shanghai, where the tallest car, the tallest wall, or the tallest building sends a clear and unwavering message that the owner is a person of great importance. I am not a person of importance.

“She thinks she’s smart,” Baba goes on. He wears a Western-style suit of good cut. His hair shows just a few strands of gray. He’s been anxious lately, but tonight his mood is darker than usual. Perhaps his favorite horse didn’t win or the dice refused to land his way. “But one thing she isn’t is clever.”

This is another of my father’s standard criticisms and one he picked up from Confucius, who wrote, “An educated woman is a worthless woman.” People call me bookish, which even in 1937 is not considered a [end of page]

Our reaction: I liked Pearl right away, but maybe more important, I get where she’s coming from instantly. She has a difficult-to-please father and she’s used to standing in her younger sister’s shadow (even though she’s taller than both of them).  The first page also hints at the meticulous research See puts into her fiction: the class distinctions of mid-century China, how Pearl’s jook is infused with her namesake gem.

The verdict: This opening scene is just a sketch, but already See has set an interesting family dynamic against the backdrop of Shanghai high society just before WW2, and I totally want to keep reading.  The book’s flap promises that Pearl and her sister’s lives will change irrevocably once their father forces them into arranged marriages — hello, epic journey across the Pacific!

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