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Behind the Bamboo Curtain
on May 31, 2011
Once again Lisa See takes readers to China, meticulously evoking a fascinating period of history. With an anthropologist's eye for details about food, dress, manners, art, architecture and even odors, this time she pulls back the bamboo curtain to reveal Red China. Who knew, for example, that Mao frowned on the too-Western convention of women wearing bras?
Dreams of Joy focuses on a triangle between a young woman named Joy; her mother, Pearl, and her aunt, May, with Joy and Pearl narrating in first-person voices. Pearl and May are characters well-drawn in Shanghai Girls, a previous See novel which covers 1937 to 1957 and moves from the girls' glittery life in Shanghai to a lesser existence in the Chinatown of Los Angeles, where they escape after the Japanese invade their country.
For readers of Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy offers closure. But if this is the first of See's books you're picking up, I doubt that you will captivated. While Pearl is a complex woman, Joy is vapid, and where See's past novels depict a China of grace alongside scenes of brutality, Communist China is rendered with all the dreariness it deserves. As a result, while Dreams of Joy may be historically accurate, it is relentlessly bleak. In addition, the plot is far-fetched. For reasons that are not convincing, Joy, a University of Chicago student, impulsively visits China to meet her biological father, an artist respected even in the new regime. From here on, a reader must suspend disbelief as events unfold built on coincidences described in prose that never reaches lift-off.
Even with its flaws, however, Dreams of Love is a powerful story about the bonds of country and motherhood. Readers will especially enjoy flashbacks to Shanghai's glory days, where "banquets came with French friends sprinkled with fine white sugar." The occasional Chinese proverb is also a treat: "An inch of gold won't buy an inch of time." Time being precious, however, I can recommend this book only if you are a reader of See's previous work.