Friday, May 27, 2011

REVIEW: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

Dreams of Joy is the much anticipated sequel to See's Shanghai Girls. In the first novel we meet Pearl and May-sisters who were once "beautiful girls" (models) who lived a pampered life in 1930's Shanghai. The girls' father sold them into an arranged marriage to two Chinese men living in Los Angeles to pay his business debts. May and Pearl try to avoid joining their new husbands in America but are forced to flee due to the changing political situation in China. In California daughter Joy-the title character in Dreams of Joy- is born and raised into an independent woman who feels strong ties to family's homeland of China. After life-altering family secrets are revealed, idealistic joy decides to flee to Chairman Mao's Communist China to help rebuild the country and find her father. Devastated, Pearl follows her daughter to China in the hopes of reconciling and bringing her home to Los Angeles. Both find themselves in the midst of a whole new and dangerous Red China. Dreams of Joy tells the story of Pearl's quest to find her daughter as both women struggle amidst one of the most tragic and tumultuous times in China's history.

It is rare that I find a sequel that I love more than the original and even more rare for me to give a book 5 Fleur's as those are reserved for books so good I would consider reading them again (I am not one who does rereads often). This book was fantastic! I felt it had more heart and emotion than its predecessor. The story is told in first person alternating between Joy and Pearl which I thought worked really well.

Joy is a young woman full of dreams of being something bigger than her self and being part of the process of bringing China to greatness. She totally buys what the propagandists and Chairman Mao are selling. Like almost every person at the age of nineteen what she actually knows about life and what she thinks she knows are two vastly different things. Her idealism leads her to leave America for China and at first she embraces the new changes unfolding in China and truly believes that Mao's Communist regime will bring about remarkable changes. Her mother Pearl is horrified at her daughters actions and returns to the country of her birth to find her. She is as I imagine any mother would be in a situation where they know their child is in danger. She is willing to do absolutely anything to find Joy and bring her back to the US but she also recognizes that Joy is an adult and must make her own decisions.

Joy finds a new life and love in the Green Dragon Village in rural China but as Mao's policies under the Great Leap Forward begin to fail, Joy's new family and the rest of the village encounter increasing hardships. Pearl must find her way to her daughter before it is too late.

Knowing virtually nothing about the political situation in China in the 1950's, I learned so much about China's conversion from Socialism to Communism and the unspeakable manner in which the Chinese suffered during this time was absolutely heartbreaking. See does a remarkable job of providing a window into this time period. Life in China became so restricted and life was especially hard for China's peasant class. Over 40 million people died from the violence and starvation. That is mind boggling. The one thing for me that was lacking in Shanghai Girls was when the author was describing emotionally wrenching situations it was in a detached way that made it hard to connect to. I didn't have this issue with Dreams of Joy. I felt great sadness at time while reading this book-this was definitely not an easy read. The love Pearl has for Joy was the one shining beacon in this story. I think all the characters grew quite a bit in the sequel.

I never thought I would find myself seeking out books to read on Communist China but I will definitely be reading more about this time period. Even though other elements are sometimes lacking in See's books, you can always count on her books painting a vivid picture of the Chinese culture for the time period she is writing about and you know as a reader that a lot of research goes into the writing of her books. For those that have not read the first book, Dreams can stand on it's own but I think you will get a lot more out of it if you read Shanghai Girls first.

This is my favorite book by Lisa See out of the three I have read and I'm pretty sure this book is going to make my top 10 list for the year.

Release Date: May 31st, 2011

This book was received from the publisher via Shelf Awareness. These are my honest thoughts on the book.


  1. Wonderful review -- you've got me so excited about this one I may skip the first book. Having so enjoyed The Beauty of the Humanity Movement which is set during the same time I believe (only in Vietnam), I think I'd dig this one.

  2. I think I'll have to read this! I wasn't thrilled with Shanghai Girls, mainly for the reasons you stated, I just didn't get the emotional feeling out of it that I felt I should have. I know nothing about this period in China either, you've really piqued my curiosity! Thanks for the great review!

  3. Great review, Holly. I didn't realise Dreams of Joy is a sequel to Shanghai Girls. I guess I'd better get reading that one asap.