I was very curious to read Lisa See, having seen her previous books travel around the blog world to mixed, but mostly positive reviews. China Dolls focuses on the situation for Oriental immigrants in America around the Second World War, and in particular the life of dancers and entertainers. Starting in 1938 in San Francisco, three young women come together in friendship as they try to make a living, and a life, for themselves. Grace is American-born Chinese, running from an abusive father. Helen comes from a large, traditional family in Chinatown and Ruby, as no one knows at first, is actually Japanese but hiding it. The Oriental nightclub, Forbidden City, is holding auditions for showgirls and over the course of these, the girls get to know one another and bond, though the friendship they share will always be shot through with rivalries and tensions, caused by the competitiveness of their careers and history, old and new.
Each of the three girls takes a turn in narrating the story, though it isn’t even-handed. The sweetest of the characters, Grace, gets the most pervasive voice and the simplest storyline as she falls for local boy, Joe, and suffers betrayal at his hands. Ruby has the best plot, being the most ruthlessly ambitious whilst attempting to disguise her Japanese origins. Helen struggles to free herself from the highly restrictive culture that dominates her large family, and turns out to have all sorts of traumatic secrets in her past, none of which are explained for a long time. This is a bit of a flaw, as she is the most abrasive and difficult character for reasons that only come out in a rush at the end. The weakest part of the story lies in the knot of friendship between the girls, which goes through all sorts of permutations as their allegiances to one another shift and change. Motivations are often thrust at us, and so they feel somewhat fragile. I can’t say I was deeply invested in who was best friends with whom and why, though I felt the story wanted me to be.
However, the situational history was extremely interesting, including the rise of Asian performers in Hollywood and the fate of the Japanese in America after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It seemed to be my month for reading about alien enemy internment camps in the USA (two books in the space of a few weeks) and I found their story fascinating. Overall, I did enjoy this – I was always interested in the fate of the girls and found the book very easy to read, but there are a few flaws and the writing is just okay.
Owen’s Daughter is similarly a tale of survival against rough odds, but set in an entirely different location – Albuquerque, New Mexico and the present day. When the story begins, Skye is waiting to be picked up from the rehab centre where she has spent the past nine months drying out and battling an addiction to pills. She is anxious to rejoin her young daughter who she has left in the dubious care of her mother-in-law, the marriage she had to her son, Rocky, a rodeo star, having foundered some time ago.
Skye’s immense distress that her ride from the rehab centre never shows is both soothed and compounded when her father arrives to take care of her. She hasn’t seen him since she was twelve and her parents’ marriage broke up. At that point her father disappeared out of her life, leaving her with an ever more unreliable mother, and Skye knows that a lot of her own problems have stemmed from this time. But now her father has reappeared and wants nothing more than to forge a new and durable relationship with her. When it turns out that Skye’s mother-in-law is nowhere to be found and her daughter, Gracie, is lost, he is ready to do all he can to trace his grandchild, despite Skye’s sharp tongue and her underlying resentment.
Complications ensue when their lives become entangled with an old flame of Skye’s father. Margaret has just received bad news of her own when the man she loved and lost a decade ago suddenly turns up in her neighbourhood. For both Margaret and Owen, this is a joyful reunion, but now both have troubled offspring to deal with, for Margaret’s son, Peter, is home after the break-up of his marriage and drinking too much.
Basically, this is your comforting tale of lives gone awry that gradually and slowly find traction again. It is apparently a sequel to the novel, Solomon’s Oak, which I evidently haven’t read and don’t see that I needed to. But the ending of the story is also inconclusive in parts, which suggests that a further portion will be forthcoming. There’s a lot to do with horses, as both Skye and her father, Owen, find work with them, Owen being a trainer from way back. And there’s also a friendly spirit, Dolores, who wafts about a bit, doing her best to bring people together, which really isn’t as bad as it sounds. Those (rare) spirit sections are rather well done. Altogether the writing and characterisation are pleasing – unpretentious but believable, Mapson’s characters are a good mix of ornery snark, kindness and self-awareness. The problems they face feel real, but they aren’t allowed to weigh too heavily; this is a book all about moving forward with courage. I found it very engrossing.