China Dolls

As in her previous eight novels (including Snowflower & the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls), Lisa See's strong women give readers a distinct perspective on a moment in history. This time, the setting is late-1930s San Francisco, with the Golden Gate International Exposition (a World's Fair) and the golden age of Chinese nightclubs.

Grace, Ruby and Helen meet by chance in California and, despite their diverse backgrounds, become fast friends. Grace, the only Chinese girl in her Ohio farm town, has fled an abusive father; Helen endures a regimented existence in Chinatown with her wealthy family; Ruby left Hawaii to seek her own independence. They share a hunger for adventure and pledge solidarity, although competiveness and jealousy sometimes buffet their loyalty.

The chapters alternate perspective, with each girl taking turns narrating. While their talents vary, all three gain spots in the glamorous Forbidden City Nightclub, and their stars are on the rise when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor hits. See's skill in weaving historic details into a fresh story shines: secrets are exposed, and the effects of the war, including the racism endemic to the West Coast, force the three to struggle to maintain their careers as showgirls.

For a novel as rich in history and characters as China Dolls, one hopes the story extends beyond the war. See satisfies our curiosity with a lengthy denouement that takes the trio into retirement yet doesn't feel contrived, assuring Grace, Ruby and Helen are heroines we'll remember. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

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