Sunday, 29 June 2014 | MYT 7:00 AM

China Dolls

  • Author : Lisa See
  • Genre : Fiction
  • Publisher : Bloomsbury


Enjoy this captivating journey

I tend to stay away books set in the Orient. Over time (and a few Orient-related books along the way), I decided that such books can be pretty long-winded. And once again my theory has been proven right – though this time in a most positive way.

Lisa See introduces us to the glamorous, glitzy world of “Oriental nightclubs” and the make-belief Princess Tai, an “Oriental Danseuse” whose life involves ponies and canaries, and (heaven forbid) a nude ranch!

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Lisa See

And then there are the tumultuous lives of three women: Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl who seeks to escape the clutches of her abusive father; Helen Fong, born into a well-to-do Chinese family in the heart of Chinatown, San Francisco, who seems to have the world at her feet, only she doesn’t; and Ruby Tom, an ambitious Japanese, passing as Chinese in the midst of World War II.

Small town girl Grace senses she is made for bigger things, bigger dreams, bigger achievements. Running away from home might or might not help her achieve that but staying where she is certainly won’t get her very far.She arrives in San Francisco where she befriends Helen; the pair then attend an audition where they meet the devil-may-care Ruby.

How delightful it is when unlikely friendships form ... but these are not your typical girls-getting-to-know-one-another-at-work. This is an elaborate piece of art, because beneath the alluring facade of the entertainment business, jealousy, betrayal, paranoia and mistrust creep about in stockinged feet.

Ambition plays a crucial role throughout the book. It is the lifeline of the book. Is ambition everything? To what ends would you go to achieve that dream? What sacrifices would you be willing to make?

Then there’s the friendship among the three women. What is the true meaning of friendship? What waters do you have to test, to endure before you can really say, hey, this bond transcends time and place?

I like Ruby. I like her vivacity, the energy that she radiates every time she is given the opportunity to narrate her views. Her positivity is the buoy that helps us get through this difficult era. She knows her strengths, she is more than aware of her flaws, but she pushes through. She’s a fighter, this one.

In stark contrast, Helen carries her own demons with her. She says little, has an air of austerity, and embodies the saying, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of this tough cookie.

Then there’s Grace. Oh, Grace. Her journey is one of growth. We come of age with her, our thoughts maturing with her, our hearts going out to her. Her small-town naivety leaves her, just as it unconsciously leaves us, yet we can’t help but root for her to succeed.

The voyage on which we are taken is equal parts mesmerising, captivating, and devastating, and the three women brave it all, even when hope seems to be as fluid as a curtain gently fluttering in a light breeze.

Our three heroines aside, the other characters are just as memorable. We have a Chinese Fred Astaire, the quirky Lim Sisters, a handsome handicapped soldier, just to give you a taste. Hey, it is a book about showbiz during, if I may say, a dark hour in the history of mankind. It definitely is fitting for the author’s imagination to run its course.

In showbiz, there is no sense of security. You can have it all just as quickly as you can lose it all, which makes each turn of the page that much more thrilling. See underlines the fact that nothing is permanent: Not the people you hold dearest or despise most, nor the worldly possessions you have stashed in a secret location. So when life gives you lemons, you improvise, just as our three very unforgettable heroines do.


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