Plenty of teenage girls dream of running away, but few do so on as epic a scale as Joy Louie.
Instead of someplace safe, like her boyfriend's or best friend's house, Joy heads for China, arriving just in time for Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward in Lisa See's Dreams of Joy, the sequel to her bestselling 2009 novel, “Shanghai Girls.”
The sequel opens in 1957 right where the first novel left off: with the entire family reeling from her father's honor suicide and Joy grappling with the realization that her “Aunt May” is really her mother.
Joy plans to find her biological father, the artist Z.G. Li, who doesn't know of her existence. After being relieved of much of her cash, her bras (apparently a Western bourgeois garment), and her US passport, somehow she does – right before he is sent to the countryside to teach art to the masses.
Ignoring his warnings, Joy goes with him, embracing collective farming and flinging herself into the ideology of her new home with as much naiveté as a 19-year-old can muster. "A part of me feels that the harsh sunlight is burning away my past and that the hard work is chopping away my past mistakes,” says Joy, who blames herself for her adoptive father’s death. Every night when I crawl into bed – my skin dirty and every muscle exhausted – I feel wiped clean, and I can sleep."
Her mom, Pearl, follows right behind her, determined to find her daughter and bring her safely home. She succeeds at the first part, but Joy can't imagine leaving utopia (or the handsome young man she met on the collective farm). May stays behind in California and tends the home fires, smuggling money and goods to help Pearl.
Unable to get permission to visit her daughter in the countryside, Pearl works as a paper collecter, pulling down pieces of posters of herself and May that once adorned Shanghai, and worrying. Meanwhile, the situation in Dandelion Number 8 commune is becoming far more dire than she could imagine.
It's not necessary to read “Shanghai Girls” to follow “Dreams of Joy,” but the book is far more rewarding if you have. Pearl's return to Shanghai, May's and Pearl's history with Z.G. – it all has much more resonance if a reader knows the history behind it.
"How is it that can I feel nostalgia for prostitutes and beggars?” Pearl wonders as she cleans the streets, bringing home paper fragments of herself and her sister to hide in a box. “But then I miss everything – the purring foreign cars, the elegant gentlemen in their tailor-made suits and jaunty hats, the laughter, the champagne, the money, the foreigners, the aromatic French and Russian bakeries, and the sheer fun of being in one of the great cities on the planet.... What haven't disappeared are the rats."
Pearl and May were “beautiful girls” in 1930s Shanghai, working as artist's models and dancing in night clubs. Both were in love with Z.G., but May had an affair with him. Then their father sold them in marriage to pay his debts, and the Japanese invaded Shanghai. After enduring horrors, the girls wound up in indentured servitude in San Francisco, with May giving birth on Angel Island. To protect her sister, Pearl pretended baby Joy was hers and raised her with her husband, Sam.
Joy, in many ways, is much younger than her mother and aunt were at her age. But See uses her stubborn idealism to slowly unfold the nightmare of The Great Leap Forward, when an estimated 45 million people starved to death as the result of bureaucratic edicts by people who knew nothing about farming.
See is a thorough researcher with an ability to anchor a reader to an era, whether it's a 19th-century village in “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” or a 20th-century commune. Most importantly, she makes readers care deeply for her characters and willing to follow them into the darkest parts of one of the last century's great manmade tragedies. The ending is a little improbable, but the second half of the novel is superior to “Shanghai Girls,” and See's readers will be grateful for the chance to find out what happened to Pearl, May, and their daughter.