three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
By: 
Lisa See
user_rating: 
0

A-DreamsJoyThe popular fiction of Chinese-American author Lisa See explores women's lives against the backdrop of Chinese history. Dreams of Joy, See's seventh novel, is a continuation of the family saga begun in her best-selling novel Shanghai Girls (3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2009) and picks up the story exactly where its predecessor left off.

The Story: An impulsive, idealistic college student in 1950s Los Angeles, Joy is shocked to learn that her mother and father, Chinese immigrants Pearl and Sam, are not her real parents. She runs away to Shanghai, where she hopes to find her real father and forge a new and better life by joining Chairman Mao's Great Leap Forward. At the border, she enthusiastically surrenders her American passport. After locating her father, she eagerly follows him from the city to the rural collective where he is to be reeducated. Soon, however, the backbreaking labor, deprivation, and brutality of life in a commune test Joy's beliefs, and Pearl may be the only one who can save her.
Random House. 368 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400067121

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The novel is front-loaded with all of these revelations, and continues to move extremely quickly until the very end--one of those hard-to-put-down-until-four-in-the-morning books--but happily, the action is not all external. ... In the end, it's a story with characters who enter a reader's life, take up residence, and illuminate the myriad decisions and stories that make up human history." Susan Salter Reynolds

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"The story that follows is jam-packed with history lessons about China during that infamous period. ... With this fraught, adversity-filled story set at an interesting time in history, See proves again with her meticulous research, knowledge and insights of Chinese culture that she can spin a character-rich tale that enlightens." Amy Canfield

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Dreams of Joy is less about the radical political and economic change of Mao's rule and more about the enduring social framework, which is See's forte. ... As with her other recent novels, See keeps her eyes focused on the women--their standing, their predicaments, their resourcefulness." Ellen Emry Heltzel

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Once again, See's research feels impeccable, and she has created an authentic, visually arresting world. Sometimes, I wish she had used her considerable talents as a stylist to convey Joy's naïveté, instead of relying upon period-friendly shortcuts. ... But once her life begins to unravel, Joy comes of age fast, and through her we glimpse the tragedy in one of history's most horrifying statistics." Chris Bohjalian

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In the end, the whole complicated web of characters matters. It's a bit of a soap opera, true, but one in which there are no clear heroes or villains, just people who often take wrong turns to their own detriment but for the good of the story, leading to greater strength of character and more durable relationships." Malena Watrous

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As is the case with many of Ms. See's characters, [Joy] has been put on the page to relay well-researched details about life in China. ... Dwarfed by matters of such historical magnitude, Joy seems less and less consequential as Dreams of Joy moves toward its ending. And the reader is dragged through the last stages of the plot, the ones that force Joy to come to her senses." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Scrupulously researched, Dreams of Joy takes Western readers on a tour of one of Asia's most terrible tragedies. However, See looks beyond major events to focus on smaller moments, relationships, and lifestyles. She "aims her pen at the most vivid aspects of daily life," states the Los Angeles Times, "but never loses sight of the sweep of history" as her memorable characters take shape and the plot gains momentum. The opening pages contain a somewhat clumsy recap of key plot points from Shanghai Girls, but the information See provides allows Dreams of Joy to stand alone. Although the New York Times was not enamored with Joy, most of the critics were captivated by See's skillful interweaving of a poignant tale of familial love with a fascinating lesson on modern China.

Also by the Author

Shanghai Girls (2009): Beautiful, independent, and privileged sisters May and Pearl Chin lead an idyllic life in 1930s Shanghai until their father, on the verge of bankruptcy, forces them into arranged marriages with "Gold Mountain men," Chinese-American immigrants who have returned to their homeland to find brides. ( 3.5 of 5 Stars Sept/Oct 2009)