Summer Reading: China Dolls by Lisa See

June 16, 2015
by Maryland Humanities

Summer’s here, which for many means summer reading. In addition to The Boys in the Boat, our One Maryland One Book selection for 2015, I’m engrossed in China Dolls by Lisa See. See is a favorite author of mine known for her historical novels centering on the lives of Chinese and Chinese-American women.

I was drawn to See’s novels because of my interest in Chinese history, but her novels about the experiences of Chinese Americans became my favorites. I devoured Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, a duology about two sisters from Shanghai who emigrate to America in the 1930s to pay off familial debt and escape the Second Sino-Japanese War. Given my fondness for See’s books set in America, I’m enjoying China Dolls.

China Dolls is set in the 1930s and 1940s during the little-known Asian-American nightclub era, and features three girls performing in the clubs. Club performers face shunning by their conservative families, racism from the audience, and a mainstream entertainment industry that looks down on them and denies them careers. Despite all this, the girls are determined and leave behind their old lives to pursue entertainment.

“I traveled west—alone—on the cheapest bus routes I could find. Every mile took me farther from Plain City, Ohio, where I’d been a fly-speck on the wallpaper of small-town life. Each new state I passed through loosened another rope around my heart, my legs, my arms, yet my whole body ached and I couldn’t shake my vertigo. I lived on aspirin, crackers, and soda pop. I cried and cried and cried. On the eighth day, California.”

So begins the novel with a chapter narrated by Grace, a girl who flees her abusive family in Ohio hoping to make a living as a dancer at a new California attraction. Turned away because the showrunner doesn’t want to cast an Asian dancer, she meets Helen and Ruby while looking for work and together they find employment at a local club. The three bond over a common goal and troubled childhoods, and become fast friends.

Like most of See’s novels, the central theme is women’s relationships. The trio’s friendship and bonds with other women are a source of strength in hard times, while still having natural conflicts. This is one of my favorite parts of the novel, in addition to the detailed history of the nightclub era. I’d recommend China Dolls to anyone who enjoys a good historical novel, a saga, or just wants an entertaining and emotive read.

What are YOU reading this summer? Tell us in the comments. (Please refer to our posting policy.)

Chang, Heidi. “These Nightclub Entertainers Paved The Way For Asian-Americans In Showbiz.” NPR. NPR, 14 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 June 2015.
See, Lisa. “A Measly Girl.” China Dolls: A Novel. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York City: Random House, 2014. 1. Print.
See, Lisa. Lisa See: Official Website. Lisa See, n.d. Web. 15 June 2015.