China Dolls by Lisa See focuses on the lives of three young women as they navigate love, careers, hardships, and betrayal.
I am a huge fan of Lisa See’s writing, having read three of her novels before picking up China Dolls and having thought of them all as being thoughtful, moving, and compelling. While China Dolls was ultimately decent historical fiction, it fell well below my expectations.
Starting off in San Fransico, 1938, this novel focuses on three young women: Grace, Ruby, and Helen. Grace, running away from her life in Ohio, dreams of becoming a big dancing star. However, she faces discrimination because of her Chinese ethnicity and manages to only secure a real audition at the ‘Oriental’ nightclub called the Forbidden City. But it is auditioning for the Forbidden City that she meets two other girls that will change her life forever. Helen, who Grace convinces to give dancing a try, is part of a huge, wealthy, and traditional Chinese family. As a result, Helen is rather stiff and the most mature of the three girls. Then there is Ruby, marked by her reckless and self-indulgent behavior, who has the most star power out of them all.
The three girls soon develop a friendship, but this friendship is not an easy one. Each harbor their own competitive streak, wanting to be the biggest star. Jealousy is everywhere, and hurtful words are carelessly flung at each other. Each girl seems to only really care about their own well-being, which makes it rather difficult to understand why they are still friends, let alone why they even became friends in the first place. Throughout the novel, several dark secrets come to light that shakes up their friendship even further. One betrayal, in particular, is so awful that it really makes the reader question the authenticity of the friendship between the three girls even more.
The characters fell flat for me. They were not likable in the slightest, though they all were able to garner my sympathy at one point or another. But none of them contained any real depth and I formed no attachment to any of them. They were entertaining, definitely, but easily forgettable. They all struggled with their culture, fought their way to fame, and dreamed of a better life… but that’s where it ends. None of them have any real personality beyond that, just stereotypical traits that are inflated greatly. The weak characters were the most disappointing aspect of this book, in my opinion.
What I liked the most about this book is what I appreciate from all of See’s books: is how it portrays history from the perspective of a Chinese woman. It was interesting to see the soaring successes and crushing failures of minority women in the entertainment industry back in the ’30s and ’40s as they made their way on the ‘Chop Suey Circuit,’ trying to keep American audiences interested. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and America being plunged into World War II was portrayed in an enlightening and fascinating manner.
In all, See is a very talented historical fiction author. This just wasn’t her finest work.