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China Dolls (2014)

by Lisa See

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,0267317,272 (3.55)92
In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco's exclusive "Oriental" nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco's Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?… (more)
  1. 10
    Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (kqueue)
    kqueue: Both books deal with Asian-Americans at the onset of World War II and the injustices they suffered along with the tensions between Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans.
  2. 00
    Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (Anonymous user)
    Anonymous user: Asian women who make their own destiny.
  3. 00
    Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Although set in the late 1920's in China, Women of Silk pairs well China Dolls because both are literary and character-driven historical novels focusing on Chinese culture. The strength of friendship during difficult situations is key, and rich historical detail permeates both stories.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 72 (next | show all)
First of all, I want to thank Random House for sending me an advanced copy. It's not a book I normally read lately due to school, but the description sounded interesting and it did not disappoint.

China Dolls follows three young women in the time surrounding World War II in San Francisco and their lives in performing around the country. We begin with Grace Lee who is a young Chinese girl running away from an abusive father in Plain City, Ohio. She has never learned anything about her own Chinese heritage, but always dreamed of being a successful dancer. While trying to find a nightclub in Chinatown, Grace meets Helen Fong. Helen is a traditional Chinese woman who lives in her family's compound and never even dreamed about a life outside of tradition. Grace convinces Helen to join her at a dance audition for Forbidden City. During the auditions, they meet Ruby Tom. Ruby is an ambitious dancer whose heart is set on a glittering lifestyle in the spotlight. We also learn that she is Japanese pretending to be Chinese in order to secure employment.

Throughout the next ten years, we follow each other their entwined lives. Sometimes, they are on top of the world with headlining performances and their pick of the stage-boy Johnnies. Other times, they are at low points in their lives. We see devastating events after Pearl Harbor is bombed. Ruby learns her brother was killed and her parents captured. Then, someone turns her in and she's sent to an internment camp. This one act leads to heartache and mistrust amongst the three girls.

This book provides a fascinating portrayal of historical events. It tells the behind the scenes details of Oriental performance during this time period, in San Francisco, on the Chop-Suey Circuit, and in New York. It shows the devastation of WWII. Most of all, it shows the bonds between these three women and how after all the heartbreak, betrayal, and loss that they can still remain strong and resilient. ( )
  CeceliaS | Nov 10, 2020 |
(7.5)The book introduces the reader to the Oriental nightclub scene in San Francisco during the Second World War. This was new territory for myself.
Three young Asian women of diverse backgrounds apply to the Forbidden City nightclub as dancers. Grace is an American-born Chinese girl who has run away from home to evade her physically violent father. She is an accomplished dancer though. Helen has been raised in San Francisco's Chinatown immersed in her culture and Ruby, unknown to her friends, is Japanese. As the war progresses and America enters the war against Japan, tensions increase between the friends. Although they are all successful, they are very competitive.
'Orientals' were treated as second class citizens and marriages with the white community were banned in many states. The girls are adored by the servicemen who frequent the clubs. As the story progresses hidden truths are revealed which threaten to derail their friendship.
The narrative voice alternates between the three girls.
Although, the setting was new to me, I became a little tired of the female dramas within the story and the repetitive night club life style. It also seemed overly long. I have loved some of Lisa See's other books but not so much this time ( )
  HelenBaker | Jul 2, 2020 |
I previously read and loved Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel and Peony in Love: A Novel. I was less enamored with Lisa See's last two novels, Shanghai Girls: A Novel and Dreams of Joy: A Novel.

Lisa See's newest novels focuses on three Asian women who end up dancing at the Forbidden City nightclub in 1938. The entire novel takes place from the 1930s to 1988. The three women are Ruby Tom, Grace Lee, and Helen Wong. Ruby is sexier and flashier than the other two women. Grace is from the mid-west and bored with her life. Helen is from a wealthy family in San Francisco's Chinatown. The three women meet at the nightclub and become fast friends.

What I really loved about this novel is that it describes how suddenly the United States became a different place after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly Asians could not be trusted and the Japanese were the enemies. The United States also became more confusing for many women during this time period since women were able to go out into the work force en masse and hold jobs that typically were held by men. I thought Ms. See was able to show that these women coming from a traditional background were expected to be even more traditional than most American women were in this time and place. I also loved how Ms. See worked in the pain of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I think sometimes most Americans forget about that time in our history and it was interesting to read about since it impacted one of the characters.

That said I gave this novel 4.5 stars. Having three characters is a tough thing for most authors to juggle. You have to keep three story-lines going and also manage to make all the story-lines and characters weave together seamlessly. Ms. See I thought was not able to work all of the story-lines together very well. For me the character I was most interested in was Ruby. I don't want to get too spoilerish in my review but when readers start reading about Ruby you will find out why she held my interest the most out of the three women.

Please note that I received this novel for free via the Amazon Vine Program. It will be released on June 3, 2014. ( )
  ObsidianBlue | Jul 1, 2020 |
As the blurb suggests, China Dolls follows the lives of three Chinese-American women working in San Francisco's nightclubs in the 1930s and 40s: Grace, a young runaway from an abusive father in the Midwest; Ruby, a promiscuous Japanese woman who pretends to be Chinese (with good reason); and Helen, slightly older than the other two and from a rich family that lives in a compound.

It took me a while to get into China Dolls, because the writing style is deceptively simple (especially Grace's chapters…) and for a while I was wondering if I'd picked up a YA book inadvertently. It certainly begins when the trio of protagonists are rather young (I'd guess that Grace and Ruby are both still teenagers, though probably not Helen) and the narrative has strong "coming of age" themes – trying to work out your place in the world, struggling with your identity, relationships with crappy boys, friendship. Overall, if the conventions of the young adult genre weren't so prudish (which this book is not!) you could fairly characterise it as that.

That said, the book was really good, and I got completely sucked in. Being "young-adult-like" does not make it bad quality! If you like historical fiction and strong female characters, are interested in the Chinese and Japanese communities in the US, or women there during the Second World War, or how the US entertainment industry used to be, this novel has got you covered.

I do agree with some other reviewers who've said this novel may have worked better if it had stuck to Grace's perspective. Grace is the real protagonist of the three. She's by far the most likeable, she gets a fair few more POV chapters than either of the other two, and what's more, even when Ruby and Helen have POV chapters they conveniently never think about anything they happen to be hiding from Grace at the time, ensuring that whatever is unknown to Grace is unknown to the reader – but of course, if she should hide something from the others the reader is in on it. It just seemed strange not to formalise the deal by having the novel expressly from Grace's perspective, instead of nominally being about all three.

As well, if you're looking to read a novel about the strength of women's friendships, this is not really the one to read. What it depicts far more is their fragility. I found it telling that early in the book, the three young women pledge never to let a man get in the way of their friendship, and, well…

I thought the ending was good, if not uplifting. I didn't think Helen's self-described motives for dobbing Ruby in to the FBI and then blaming Grace made a hell of a lot of sense though – was it because she was traumatised by her husband and son being murdered by "Japs" in China? or because she was jealous of Ruby and wanted Grace all for herself? if she really wanted Grace to get all the opportunities she claimed, why did she then turn everyone in the nightclub against her to get her fired, before Ruby was even out of the damn internment camp to need lying to?! All in all it just made her seem deeply irrational and selfish, which was out of character. I was also irritated that Grace would forgive Joe and agree to marry him after he'd already broken her heart twice, even if I appreciated the depiction of returned servicemen as traumatised, not cheerful heroes. But I was relieved that she finally cut the poisonous Helen and Ruby (mostly) out of her life, even if it resulted in the awkward conclusion of choosing a man over your female friends being the path to happiness.

I think I'll have to read more of Lisa See's books! (Jul 2014) ( )
  Jayeless | May 27, 2020 |
Man - I really enjoyed this book! Three young Chinese Americans meet up in San Francisco during the late thirties and become fast friends. They bond through their love of the spotlight. They love being on the stage and dancing, dazzling the audience with the grace and wit. From Forbidden City Nightclub to other venues; they delight in sequins, lace, and silk. Grace is outgoing but escaping a hard past in Plain City, Ohio. Helen is smothered in her family compound in San Francisco's Chinatown. Ruby left her parents in Hawaii to find stardom in California. The three share many ups and downs, lots of prejudice from White Americans, especially when America enters the war. Can their friendship survive all? Told through alternating perspectives; this is a timeless, complicated, and unique story of friendship. Wonderful! ( )
  ecataldi | May 19, 2020 |
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Only three things cannot be long hidden:  the sun, the moon, and the truth.  (Attributed to Buddha)
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For Henry Theodore Kendall
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I traveled west--alone--on the cheapest bus routes I could find.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco's exclusive "Oriental" nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco's Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?

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