Title: Dreams of Joy
Author: Lisa See
Release Date: May 31, 2011
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Multicultural Fiction
Rating: 4.25 out of 5
Warning: This summary and review may contain spoilers for Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.
Picking up where Shanghai Girls left off, after learning about the truth about her origins, Joy has taken off to China to find her father. Devastated, Pearl goes after her, worried about what Joy will find in Communist China and whether she will be able to return to the United States.
When I first picked up Dreams of Joy, I had no idea it was a sequel to Shanghai Girls. I didn’t need to know what it was about to want to read it, just because Lisa See is such a talented author. Upon opening it, though, I was very happy I’d read Shanghai Girls first because I would have missed out on a lot of emotional connections with the characters, and specifically, with Pearl. Only by understanding the hardships she’d come through in order to find safety in America, and the horrors she’d experienced since, can the reader really understand how difficult it is for Pearl to put aside everything and return to China for her daughter.
Joy is a difficult character at the beginning of the novel. I had a lot of trouble with her in Shanghai Girls, and she wasn’t any better in this book. To me, she seemed spoiled, unappreciative, and completely misguided. I wanted to reach out and hug Pearl at the same time I wanted to give Joy a good shaking. That should tell you how realistic these characters were - I felt like I was hearing someone’s story, rather than reading it in a novel.
However, Joy really changes over the course of the book. She begins to understand more about her past, about her family, as well as how much her mother and aunt sacrificed for her. She makes some incredibly poor decisions, and Pearl is wise enough to realize that she can’t stop her. Joy learns the hard way, and grows up very quickly. I absolutely loved witnessing her transformation, at the same time I ached for how much pain she had to go through.
See presents a very interesting and complicated portrait of Communist China. She details the inefficiency, the contempt of luxury, and hostility towards the West at the same time we see hints of how, for some people, things really haven’t changed. Everyone is under suspicion, and for the most mundane and simple of reasons. It was certainly an interesting atmosphere, and See portrayed it well. The difficulty in the book comes as things get more desperate in China. During the Great Leap Forward, there was a famine in the countryside and millions of people died. And it’s here the novel becomes really haunting. Days after I’ve finished reading it, I cannot get these descriptions out of my head. The desperation, the horror - there were times I had to put the book down just to absorb what See was telling me. The lengths people went to in order to eat, the sheer number of people that died - it was completely and utterly horrific, and that part of the book will be with me for a very long time.
From the characters to the setting to the amazing writing, Dreams of Joy is a well-crafted and engaging novel. Joy can be very difficult at times, and she is clearly completely deluded and makes hard-to-believe decisions, but despite this, I found this novel to be very powerful. Its strength is in the history and the time period, and See does an incredible job bringing it to life. I’m glad that I got to continue Pearl’s story, and am excited to see what Lisa See does next.