Pearl and May Chin are sisters, and the ups and downs of their relationship propel the story forward, but the book is narrated in Pearl's first-person voice. Because of that, I felt that I only got to know the other characters, including May, as Pearl saw them, and there were times I found that a bit frustrating.
But there's no doubt that the sisters' stories are joined to one another, and they have quite a story to tell. As young, carefree "beautiful girls" - basically, models for commercial artists - the Chin sisters may bicker with one another and their parents, but their lives are pretty easy; that is, until they're not anymore. When they're sold into marriage to two American brothers in partial payment of their father's gambling debts, they fight going until they're forced out of Shanghai by war between China and Japan. A harrowing trip across their home country and the Pacific eventually lands them at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, where they are held for months before they're allowed to join their husbands and new family in Los Angeles. And once they arrive there, the life they find waiting for them isn't what they expected.
Despite the general issue with character development that I already mentioned, I felt that author Lisa See drew Pearl very well. I could see her grow and become more resilient over time, I sensed the obstacles and blinders she put in her own way, and her voice kept me engaged with her story. (I still would have liked to see several of the characters - particularly May and Pearl's husband Sam - through eyes other than Pearl's, but those perspectives would have changed the novel.) See's ability to convey time and place is impressive; I was particularly drawn into the portion of the story at Angel Island, and was fascinated by the portrait of a long-gone Los Angeles. I felt that the plot itself verged on soap-operatic in spots, to be honest, but See's excellent writing made it work for me.
This is the first of Lisa See's novels that I've read (although Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has been living in TBR Purgatory for a while), and I've heard that some of her fans haven't liked it quite as much as her earlier books, partly because it's less "historical." I'll be a contrarian here - the 20th-century setting, and partial location of the story in my own city, are among the things that I found most appealing about Shanghai Girls. Despite my quibbles, I enjoyed the novel, and I'll be recommending this one to friends who seek out thought-provoking fiction, especially if they also like strong female characters and vivid settings in the recent past.