“Dreams of Joy” is Lisa See’s sequel to “Shanghai Girls”. I read “Shanghai Girls” back in 2009 and I remember classifying it as one of my top ten favorite books of the year. So when I heard that Lisa See had written a continuing story that reintroduces us to Pearl and May, as well as their communal daughter, Joy, I knew I was going to enjoy it just as much as the first novel.
The story starts out in 1957 with a 19-year-old Joy who receives some shocking news from her Aunt and Mother. May gave birth to Joy, but Pearl raised her and claims her as her own. When she finds out, she decides the best thing for her to do is to run away and search for her biological, artistic, father Z.G. Li. Her departure means leaving Los Angeles and a world that has never felt like home. Like many young women, Joy is idealistic and believes that China is where she truly belongs, despite everyone’s opinions and advice not to go. This story is set in the time when Mao ruled in China and Joy firmly believes that the ‘great leap movement’ is something she needs to be a part of to make her feel a sense of worthiness.
We then follow Joy on her journey into China, leaving her passport with officials, she’s determined that this is where she’s meant to be and has no plans to move home. Upon learning her daughter has run away to China, Shanghai specifically, Pearl (her adopted Mother) decides that she must go rescue her daughter to ensure that she comes home to L.A. where she will be safe and not exposed to the reality of China that she’s sure her daughter doesn’t understand.
Thus begins a story that is well-rounded and well depicted, switching in narrative between Mother and Daughter. The reader experiences Mao’s government through the voice of a naive, young girl and a middle-aged woman who understands first hand what has happened to a country she once called home.
Upon arriving and finding her father, Z.G. Li, an artist who’s quite famous and responsible for the drawings of her Mother and Aunt in the ‘Beautiful Girls’ pictures, she’s initially exposed to Shanghai in all it’s glory. Her father has servants, they attend parties where they are fed fabulous food and she is dressed in garments that were once clothes her Mother and Aunt wore. Joy automatically feels connected to the people in China and knows that she’s made the right decision to run away from America. However, her vision of China is skewed and she is unaware of the role her Father actually plays in society, to share this point with you, will only take away from the story, so I’ll let you figure out his real role when you pick up this novel. Needless to say, Joy finds love, despite her Mother (who’s now arrived and found her) and her Father’s begging to be realistic about what this union will do to her life. However, Joy remains true to her feelings and marries Tao, an uneducated boy from the Green Dragon commune. This union starts to put everything into perspective and Joy gets a real taste of what her parents have been stressing the moment she got off the boat in China.
If there was ever a story that I’ve pitched that has a coming of age theme, it should be this one, because we watch as both, Joy and Pearl develop into well-rounded women. Lisa See’s research, time and effort is evident on each page of this novel. It can be read in relation to Pearl and May’s first story “Shanghai Girls”, but it’s also written in a way that makes it work as a stand alone novel as well. I highly recommend picking this one up if you’re interested in a story about mothers and daughters and well-developed characters.