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Originally published Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 7:05 PM

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Book review

'Dreams of Joy': Lisa See's novel of two women adrift in Mao's China

Novelist Lisa See's "Dreams of Joy" continues the saga of "Shanghai Girls," as two women, American residents of Chinese heritage, return to China and get caught up in the political turmoil of Mao's Great Leap Forward.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Lisa See

The author of "Dreams of Joy" will read at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Public Library's Central location; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org). Co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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'Dreams of Joy'

by Lisa See

Random House, 354 pp., $26

Since 2005, novelist Lisa See has built a literary franchise with fiction that puts women's lives in the context of Chinese history.

Her first — and still the most compelling — member of this cast is "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," a tale of two 19th-century women that will be released as a film this July.

In the meantime, See's latest book, "Dreams of Joy," continues the odyssey begun in her previous novel, "Shanghai Girls."

"Shanghai Girls" introduced Pearl and May Chin as two frivolous young women in a well-to-do Shanghai household of the 1930s. When their father loses his money, the girls are pushed into arranged marriages with Chinese men who have immigrated to the States.

The two books are best read sequentially, but See reviews enough pertinent details in the new one to let "Dreams of Joy" stand alone. The most relevant is May's affair and subsequent pregnancy before she leaves China. To hide the shame, Pearl and her husband, Sam, raise Joy, May's love child, as their own.

As "Dreams of Joy" opens in Los Angeles in 1957, 19-year-old Joy blames herself for Sam's suicide — with some justification. Her political activism on campus caught the FBI's attention, and Sam feared that their curiosity had to do with his own illegal status. In the ensuing trauma, May and Pearl divulge that Sam is not Joy's natural father. Angry and distraught, she takes off for China to find her natural dad.

If this sounds a bit contrived, it is. Joy becomes our all-American stand-in, an innocent abroad in a very foreign land. Her idealized version of China clashes with the reality: She has entered an impoverished police state where Mao and his cronies use brutal force to determine who's in and who's out. She quickly unites with her father, the artist known as Z.G.

Thus the plot thickens nicely. Z.G., an insider but just barely, becomes Joy's guide to both the life of the elites and the cruel conditions in the countryside, where he is sent for re-education. Meanwhile, the desperate mother chases after her daughter. Pearl's role as alternate narrator of the story is essential, because she has both the memories and the maturity to tell us what is really happening.

The timing of their arrival is deliberate. As 1958 dawns, China mobilizes for the Great Leap Forward, an initiative to lift agricultural output. Joy and Pearl are our witnesses to its colossal failure and the famine that claims 20 million lives.

"Heaven never seals off all exits," Joy tells herself as the risk of starvation looms ahead. However, this blend of Chinese wisdom and American optimism is clearly more applicable to those with U.S. passports.

Make no mistake, though: "Dreams of Joy" is less about the radical political and economic change of Mao's rule and more about the enduring social framework, which is See's forte. As she shows, family and village continue to be the central organizing devices in Chinese culture, and even though the Communist regime exalts women in theory, the facts tell a different story.

Nowhere is this revealed more tellingly that when villagers jeer at Joy's friend Yong as she is forced to walk back home on bound feet. The Communists outlawed this risky practice more to discredit the upper classes than to raise the status of women.

As with her other recent novels, See keeps her eyes focused on the women — their standing, their predicaments, their resourcefulness. This is what makes her books so popular. In "Dreams of Joy," the question is not whether Joy or Pearl can survive her ordeal but, rather, which is the book's true heroine. Pearl gets my vote.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

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