Book Review : Dreams Of Joy By Lisa See


I have been a huge fan of Lisa See’s books ever since her memoir, On Gold Mountain. I thought her two crime novels set in China, “The Interior” and “Dragon Bones” were fantastic. Then came “Peony In Love” and “Snow Flower And The Secret Fan”, I preferred “Snow Flower” to “Peony In Love”.

Subsequently, there was “Shanghai Girls” and “Dreams Of Joy” is the sequel to that. “Shanghai Girls” is set in 1930s China during the Japanese Occupation and is about the lives of two well-to-do Shanghai girls who went into arranged marriages (to 2 brothers) and sailed off to Los Angeles to start a new life with their new families.

“Dreams Of Joy” is set mainly in 1950s China, which was on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution. It’s about Joy, the daughter of one of the two Shanghai girls who upon learning of her true parentage, sets out from Los Angeles to search for her biological father, a famous artist in Shanghai.

After finding her biological father, she follows him to a rural village where she falls in love with a peasant, one of her father’s art students. That’s where the story becomes incredulous. A well educated Westernized girl finds village life which has no modern amenities fascinating and is willing to throw away her life in America to live in appalling conditions? I bet a lot of those peasants would have given their right arm to be able to live in America yet she preferred to cast aside her life of comfort to live in abject conditions.

Joy marries the peasant, never mind that she gave up her American passport when she entered China, she gave up her right to live a cushy life in Shanghai with her father too. This excerpt from the book best describes what the harsh life and deprivations in the village turned her into:-

“I catch a glimpse of myself in Yong’s mirror. My body is as thin as a ginseng root. My hands are as bony as dried twigs. My skin looks translucent. My hair hangs lifeless. My lips, which were soft and full, have shrunk to almost nothing. I’ll turn twenty-two on the twentieth of the month, but hunger has turned me into an old woman nearing death.”

Throughout the novel, I couldn’t feel an iota of pity for the main protagonist. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know what to expect as she’d lived among the villagers for a few months when her father was teaching art to the peasants. Yet she chose, of her own free will, to embrace the life of a peasant.

Bad enough that she put herself through hell, she also endangered the lives of others, of her own parents who went through unnecessary trouble to save her. Joy’s rashness, impetuousness and sheer stupidity were just plain irritating. It made this book my least favourite Lisa See novel.

As I read what Joy had to endure in the village (why would anyone give up city life to share a one-room hut with their husband’s parents and multitude siblings?), I found myself screaming silently and going “Are you kidding me?”. Her suffering may have been intense but her utter idiocy was far more intense.

The book is available at Borders for RM63.95 (just as well there was a 20% discount!).