Pros: Crisp, descriptive prose and a story that will keep you awake.
Cons: Oh, Joy can be such a brat!
It was with a great deal of anticipation that I preordered a copy of Lisa See's novel, Dreams of Joy, onto my Nook. And once it was available, I gleefully dived in, and was not at all disappointed.
This novel picks right up where the previous book, Shanghai Girls, leaves off. For Pearl, who is one of the narrators of the story, life has fallen apart -- under pressure from the FBI to reveal those he knows are Chinese communists, her beloved husband Sam has killed himself, and the secrets that Pearl has kept for decades are revealed. Now her true daughter Joy, a college student who is enraptured by the Communist visions of Mao Tse-Tong, has run away to mainland China, to find her real father and discover the truth.
Pearl, naturally, is quite distraught, and decides that the only thing that can be done is to go to China herself and retrieve Joy, if she can. Pearl knows that the journey to China is going to be difficult, and getting out even more so, but even so, the new China is quite a shock for her. And the past becomes a haunted ground as she seeks out the home she once had with her family, and eventually, Joy's father, Z.G.
As for Z.G., now possessing a fine home and even servants to care for him in Communist China, he's none too pleased to have Joy turn up on his doorstep. Still, he does take her under his wing, and decides that she would do as he goes to a peasant village in the countryside to bring some art and the new education to the masses. Here, Joy finds the promise of the new regime, a vision that she still sees with a great deal of naiveté, and to be honest, and not much sense. She falls in love with one of the young men, and decides that he is the one for her, especially as it seems that Z.G. won't mind, and he is striving to be an artist like herself.
In the meantime, the world is taking note of China, and the Chairman decides on a radical step -- the Great Leap Forward, where he and China will prove that they are equal players on the world stage. For Joy, Pearl and Z.G., the results will be momentous, and make indelible marks, if they can survive...
I found this one to be quite a read, with many sudden turns and history that I had never encountered before. To her credit, Lisa See never slips into the mistake of bogging down the story into details, nor does she treat her characters lightly. There are bright moments in this story, and other times the way becomes quite harrowing. If anyone thinks that the author is painting her communist characters as villains, I don't think so -- at times the story is simply one of trying to survive and keep their lives together. Several scenes were so intense that I had to set the book down and walk away for a few moments, and there are not that many books that can do that to me any more.
I did not find the story at all farfetched, and the result of what must have been years of research shows. The prose is stark, but what I loved was how the author managed to draw me into the innermost thoughts and dreams of each person. Most evocative are both Joy and Pearl. Joy I regularly wanted to smack out of her own little fantasy and scream at her, wake up! But it also feels right, as Joy is very young, and lacks the deeper knowledge and experience that would shake her out of her idealism. Then there's Pearl, surely one of the bravest mothers in fiction, as she has to confront her own fears to rescue her only child.
While this can be read as a standalone novel, I do recommend that the reader go back and read Shanghai Girls before taking this one on. There's a great deal of the tangled relationships between May and Pearl that is not covered, and some of the subtleties of the plot will be missed.
This was a very satisfying novel, and one that I can recommend to anyone who wants their fiction to be both grand and intimate. It is also very revealing on many levels, and helped me to both learn and understand a bit more about the Communist regime of modern China.
Four stars overall, very much recommended.
Once again, many thanks to the Books CL Patsy for adding this to the database for me, and in the midst of flurry of requests too!
Books by Lisa See:
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Peony in Love
Dreams of Joy -- you are here
Dreams of Joy
2011; Random House Publishing Group