Chinese-American author Lisa See has made her mark in the realm of historical fiction by melding her well-researched historical sagas with strong female characters linked either by birth, as in Shanghai Girls (2009) and Dreams of Joy (2011), or by lifelong friendship, as in her breakout book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005).

In her ninth book, See explores the Chinese community in San Francisco, where three young women meet on an evening in 1938 as they audition for spots as dancers at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee has fled from an abusive father in Plain City, Ohio, where her family members were the only Chinese she had ever seen. She becomes lost in the maze of Chinatown, and is rescued by Helen Fong, the only daughter in a very traditional family. Her father expects her to marry soon and become a traditional Chinese wife and mother.

At the audition, the two meet the flamboyant Ruby Tom, a young Japanese woman passing as Chinese. She loves glitter, she tells her new friends, and she wants to become famous. The three are hired to dance at the Forbidden City, and soon each one becomes a star—while at the same time vowing to support one another through good and bad.

See traces the lives of these three memorable women through chapters told in their alternating voices, drawing the reader into their struggles, their romantic adventures and their backstories, which are only gradually revealed. As the story reaches World War II and then beyond, the women face racism, as well as more challenges in their personal lives and their careers.

See’s compelling story of these three resilient women—connected by fierce loyalty, as well as one act of betrayal that threatens that bond—is backed by meticulous research into the Chinese-American nightclub era, making her portrayal of this little-known period in history all the more memorable.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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