Book Review: Lisa See’s China Doll

After six months waiting in the library’s “request” queue, I finally got the “New” (as the red label on the book cover said) book titled “China Doll” by Lisa See. But I’m afraid by the time the book is in my hand, this “New” label has been out of date. Perhaps it’s out of my old habit developed during my three-year stint as a magazine editor, I gave a careful perusal of the book cover, the front and back matter of the book before I read the contents. Yeah, yeah, I know the old saying, don’t judge a book by its cover. But in fact, so many times a reader, especially a new reader, can easily fall into this rut. A book cover or a book title is the first thing that a reader sees. That’s how s/he determines whether this book is worth reading, whether s/he will get the payback after devoting hour after hour, night after night of their time on reading.

These days book publishers seem to title a book or select a book cover in a more provocative or sensational way. So it makes readers like me harder to pick a book by a new writer if I cannot rely on its book cover or its title. And too many times after I spent time on the contents and the book was half-read, I realized it was really wasting my time. But it’s too late to regret. Since I had finished half or even more than half of the book, I didn’t want to give up reading. It’s just like a gamble. Once I place my bet, there’s no turning back, isn’t there? The more I read, the more I find the novels which I’ve read follow the same “pattern,” that is, only have you flipped over 100 pages of the book, the plot begins to be on a faster track, or you may say, it gets more interesting, intense, makes sense etc.

Lisa See’s latest novel “China Doll” is just like that. Nothing has happened in the first 100 pages or so. The author seems to buy time from her readers, promising that if you–the reader–are willing to take this slow ride with me in the first 100 pages, I–the writer–guarantee you will get something back as the story unfolds. So as gullible as many readers are, I did stay with the author on this ride. Not because I was curious about what would happen in the book, but because I had made that bet and there was no turning back. I didn’t want my time wasted for nothing.

“China Doll” as the title suggests is a story about Chinese people. Accurately speaking, it’s a story about Americans with Chinese heritage and family roots. From the book cover of a Chinese woman dressed in an old-fashioned pink mink, you can tell it is also a story about the old days–the first half of the 20th century. See is an expert of writing stories in those days, especially about the Chinese societies in the West Coast of the States. Her previous books are also about Chinese women in this period of time. I guess she’s drawn to the history of this particular time because of her own family background–she keeps manifesting proudly in public that her has one eighth of Chinese blood. Her great great grandfather is a Chinese who immigrated to the States.

Allow me to comment off at a tangent. Comparing with another Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, See grapes every chance she has to make a manifesto that she’s a Chinese descendent–in her books, in her interview, in her public appearance, in her research so on and so forth. Whereas the Beijing-born American writer Yiyun Li defends in public all the time that her stories are NOT only about Chinese people and China. Her Chinese characters are more incidental than planned. She doesn’t want to be labeled as a “Chinese” writer per se despite the fact that she IS a Chinese by ethnicity. What a preposterous contradiction!

Back to See’s “China Doll.” Compared to her previous work, this latest novel is a bit insipid to me. The author tries hard to draw the picture of the night club scenes and the dance girls in the old days in the West Coast. But she writes the three protagonists all in first person and these interwoven voices become confusing and distracting. Many times the story just lost me when I tried to figure out who is who. Plus the shaping of the characters seem to fall into the same depiction as banal as the book cover suggests. It’s like when I’ve been warned by Jewish people that not all Jews are rich, smart and well-educated. These three dance girls in the early 1920s are indeed robotic China dolls.

I’m not surprised that my review of this novel is very different from many book reviews in the newspaper. As they always are, the book reviews by mainstream media are so positive and reserved as if any bad comments about a new book will lead to the reviewers’ unemployment or worse, will poison the sales of the book.

See tries to set up suspense in the book. Such as the scar on one of the protagonist, the past of the mother of this protagonist, and the alienation of the lover of another protagonist. But she doesn’t lay a solid groundwork, or in a writer’s lingo, not enough foreshadowing is hinted early in the book. When the suspense is released, it becomes abrupt and in some cases, it is predictable. For instance, the happy ending of the book, in my opinion, is redundant.

This book certainly needs some editing with many cuts. Its length is nearly 400 pages. But apparently, once you are a known writer, your publisher tends to be lax on the quality of your book. Because you have established your fan club, your readership, your reputation–a guarantee of sales. That makes a difference!

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