Books

Leaving home, going home

"Dreams of Joy" by Lisa See (Random House, 349 pages, $26)

The laughs, the rivalries, the shared clothes and shared secrets, the battles of wills and the deep-down unwavering support: Pearl and May are sisters, different but close, united by birth, by life, and by a daughter, Joy.

The sisters, introduced in Lisa See's previous novel, "Shanghai Girls," fled Shanghai during the Japanese invasion, a harrowing escape made successful only by the fact that they'd been sold by their father into arranged marriages with two brothers living in California.

"Dreams of Joy" picks up about two weeks after "Shanghai Girls" ends. At the end of that novel, Joy discovers that Pearl, whom she knew as her mother, is not her biological mother but her aunt — May is her mother. At the beginning of this novel, Joy, head full of naive idealism about communist China, runs away to find her biological father, an artist named Z.G., with whom both Pearl and May were in love back in Shanghai.

Luck is with Joy, and she finds her father almost immediately. But he has run afoul of the authorities and must travel to the countryside to teach art to peasants in a commune.

Pearl follows Joy to China, a place to which she thought she'd never return, but reaches Shanghai after Joy has already left. Her family's old house is still there, and she joins the motley group of people living there. She gets a job as a "paper collector" (basically a street cleaner) and waits for her daughter.

Joy, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a young man in the countryside, and neither parent can dissuade her from a hasty marriage.

The story spans several years, and alternates between Joy's and Pearl's viewpoints, which works well since they are apart much of the time. We see Pearl reconnecting with her old home, not wishing to leave China, horrifying though the changes may be, unless it's with her daughter. We see Joy slowly realizing what life under Mao really means — that slogans and "modernization" mean nothing when you're starving.

As "Shanghai Girls" focused on the Chinese immigrant experience and the bonds between sisters, so "Dreams of Joy" explores a girl's coming of age and the bonds between mothers and daughters. Lisa See so realistically portrayed the sisters' relationship in "Shanghai Girls" that it's no surprise she captures all the nuances of the mother-daughter bond in "Dreams of Joy," all the while telling an unpredictable, compelling story.

A while after they've reunited, Pearl has to leave Joy at the commune: "She's chosen a life I wouldn't pick, but it is her life and she's going to have to figure things out for herself — as a woman. It kills me to let her go, but it's the best and only thing I can do as her mother."

And after she's gone, Joy realizes how mixed-up her life is: "I couldn't talk about these things with my mother when she was here, because I didn't was her to worry. I tried to act happy in front of her after that night we talked in the villa. I told her what I thought she wanted to hear. I needed her to believe I was happy so she could go back to Shanghai. But the truth is I'm heartbroken."

The move to China leads to Joy and Pearl growing closer and wiser, and getting a bit surprised to learn a few things about themselves. Though the focus is on them, the other characters in the book are given full, interesting personalities as well.

You don't need to have read "Shanghai Girls" to enjoy "Dreams of Joy," but you may want to. Both are beautifully written, richly detailed, emotionally true books that will carry you off into another time and place.

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