Lisa See, the author of [i]Snow Flower and the Secret Fan[/i], which was a really good book, has delivered a less interesting and slightly faded remix of the same themes Snow Flower had – namely, friendship and Chinese culture. The characters are wooden: good-girl Grace, scandalous Ruby, cantankerous Helen. The story limps along like a wounded homing pigeon, following the “glamour” of the Forties while skipping any of the realities of the second World War. (It does make an appearance, as do the Japanese internment camps, but it doesn’t overshadow the character’s lives in a believable fashion. Ruby is unchanged after her experiences in one.)
Grace, a Chinese girl from Ohio, escapes her dad’s physical abuse and runs off to San Francisco, where she meets Helen, a demure Chinese girl from a good family with strong, traditional values. Together, they meet Ruby, who isn’t Chinese – she’s Japanese – and the three become friends while working in and around the nightclub scene of Chinatown. Pearl Harbor puts a dent in their lives, but the book’s main focus is what the girls do to one another and the secrets they keep. They’re very predictable secrets, because they’re very predictable characters. Yep, you got it: Grace is the “good friend,” Ruby is the “slut” and Helen is frequently the villain. Their secrets range from being a widow to doing another girl’s boyfriend to being Japanese in a Chinese section of town, then trying to “pass” during the second World War.)
Their biggest fights are over the traditional things girls go to war over: guys, money, and careers. Each girl develops her
own burlesque act over time: traditional Helen creates a ballroom dancing act in her lavender marriage, Ruby wows crowds by “bubble dancing,” and Grace creates her own ad-hoc “Chinese” dancing. However, the girls reach stardom only when they work together, becoming the Swing Sisters, a dance troupe featured on shows like Ed Sullivan. It’s a sweet notion, but the lack of character development is unpleasant.
One thing I did like about this novel, though, was the backdrops that See created for the era. In the background stories, descriptions, and characters, this novel really shines. Unfortunately, the characters at the novel’s heart never really take shape. I’d recommend this as a beach read – like the saying about Chinese food, you’re going to be “hungry” again soon after this bit of fluff.