Dreams of Joy

  • Lisa See
  • Random House
  • 368 pp.

This sequel to an acclaimed novel sends two main characters on a reverse journey back to Communist China.

Reviewed by Sarah Pekkanen

If you haven’t read Lisa See’s best-selling works of fiction before, Dreams of Joy may not be the book to start with. Not because this novel, which traces the interwoven stories of a mother and daughter in Shanghai in the late 1950s, isn’t riveting and powerful, but because it’s a sequel to another of See’s acclaimed books, Shanghai Girls.

The first hundred or so pages are heavy with back story as See references the dramatic events in Shanghai Girls that caused sisters Pearl and May, along with a baby named Joy, to escape China during the Japanese invasion and find refuge in America. Dreams of Joy leaps ahead nearly two decades while simultaneously sending Pearl and Joy on a reverse journey, back to Communist China.

Nineteen-year-old Joy has fled Los Angeles in the middle of the night because long-held family secrets have suddenly erupted, causing her to question her very identity. She now knows that Pearl is her aunt, not her biological mother, and that an artist named Z.G. is her biological father. Joy has two goals: find Z.G., and embrace China as her new home. Pearl follows Joy, tracking her to Shanghai, and desperately tries to repair their rift. But being in her native country forces Pearl to confront her own tangled and often painful history there, including an unfinished relationship with the man she has never forgotten — Z.G.

The two women take turns narrating alternating chapters, and while the first half of the book flows smoothly, thanks to See’s uncluttered prose and scrupulous research, it’s the last hundred and fifty pages that mesmerize. By now Joy, who has ardently embraced Chairman Mao’s vision, is newly married, already doubting her husband and trapped emotionally as well as physically. Pearl has doubts of her own — not just about the path her daughter has chosen but also about the “Great Leap Forward” her country is embarking upon.

When Mao orders communes to follow his untested farming strategies, Pearl watches as seasoned farmers shake their heads, even as they obey. “How can you reason with someone, who’s lived in a city for his entire life, about the crops and soil that you and your ancestors have worked for generations?” Pearl wonders.

It’s clear that danger is coming. Pearl also questions the seeming abundance of food. “We’ve been encouraged to eat, eat, eat. This is contrary to just about everyone’s way of thinking, because you never know when hard times will come, but we obey.”

Joy, meanwhile, has become pregnant and gives birth to a daughter of her own. By now, she and Pearl have reconciled but are living separately, with Pearl remaining in Shanghai and Joy relocating to a countryside commune with her in-laws. Their communication is limited to letters that are heavily censored. Joy’s situation quickly spirals from bad to dire, but there’s no way she can communicate this to her mother. Crops are failing on the communes. There isn’t enough food, and rations are cut again and again. People begin dying, famine ravages the countryside, and there’s no way out.

See’s unflinching prose captures this devastating period of history as its horrors unfolds, and it’s almost impossible to keep turning the pages — yet impossible not to. Joy’s husband turns on her, and she doesn’t have the will or means to survive. Her last chance lies in a cryptic message she sends to Pearl. During the book’s final scenes, See’s greatest power is showcased as she revealing the strength of the mother-daughter bond, and how, during the times we need it most, it can not only sustain us but sometimes even save us.

Sarah Pekkanen is the internationally best-selling author of The Opposite of Me and Skipping a Beat, which was an O Magazine top pick. Her website is www.sarahpekkanen.com and she can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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