"That sense of loss for people and places who made me who I am, that's the real sadness in that book," See, 54, said in a telephone interview from her home in L.A. She will be speaking at the Central Library of the Free Library tonight at 7:30. "I was trying to capture the people and the story and the places before they disappear."
See said she was about a third of the way into the writing when a group of women from a book club came to L.A. for a tour they had won through an auction. As she took the women to meet her elderly relatives, many still ensconced in their original stores, she was struck by the obvious: it was all coming to an end.
At a shop run by a cousin, she looked for her grandmother's dowry table - around which her family had sat for 100 years - an item her cousin had promised would be the last thing sold before she closed the store. The table was gone.
"My cousin had sold it," See recalled. "The women on the tour were having a wonderful time. I was absolutely devastated. I realized in two hours, all of the people and places that had meant so much to me, given me the material that I write about, that made me who I am, it's all going to be gone in a couple years."
In the acknowledgments, See thanks the book-club women for helping her "find the emotional heart of the novel." And emotional it is. ("Even the best of moons will be tinged with sadness," says one character.)
Shanghai Girls starts in cosmopolitan and style-conscious Shanghai - the so-called Paris of Asia - and switches quickly to Los Angeles during World War II, to a time of suspicions of Communist sympathies, forced confessions, confused offspring, "paper" sons, and roaming FBI agents.
The sisters begin the novel as "beautiful girls" - models for those ubiquitous calendars from China that long intrigued See as a jumping-off point for a novel - and end up, for better or worse, in arranged marriages.
Along the way, the sisters - the older, ruddy-faced, practical Pearl and the fairer, dreamier May - experience or witness bombings, rapes, death, suicide, interrogations, congenital illness, faked pregnancy, cruelty, jealousy, stillbirth, lies, betrayal, some indifferent (or worse) "husband-wife" things, excellent sweet and sour pork, the glamour of Hollywood (or, as the characters refer to it, Haolaiwu), and the occasional stubbornly tender moment.
In Jacob and Esau manner, they compete for attention from their parents, and for a female form of birthright (who gets to be mother to a child).
It is those rough patches of women's relationships that provide the heft to See's novels. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is on its surface a story of foot-binding in China, but more about how relationships between women are maintained or destroyed.
In her novels, See resurrects the kinds of stories that often have been left untold, or, perhaps worse, inauthentically rendered. There is nothing inauthentic about how she writes about childbirth, or the sometimes awkward intimacies shared by mothers and daughters over a lifetime. "I think there's a dark shadow to women's friendship," she says. "I'm very curious about that.
"I was really interested in two things: what's the difference between actual sisters and friends who are as close as sisters," says See, whose parents were divorced when she was 3, and who has two half-sisters and a former stepsister. "The other: Is there something a sister could do, that would be the end."
Hollywood provides a unique backdrop to the immigrant Chinese experience in Los Angeles, specifically the kitschy Hollywood-set-backdropped China City tourist attraction where her relatives had shops. "The girls end up in China City, which is supposed to be an authentic Chinese city but it's completely fake," See says. And, in some ways, not nearly as modern as what they've left behind.
They become familiar with the concept of "eating bitterness," debate the merits of broken jade (going for too much) versus flawless clay (acceptance, perhaps), and grapple with old rituals (such as maintaining an altar for worshipping ancestors) - all while navigating the subtle nuances of fate, fortune, and destiny, which also divide the book.
See, whose extended family of more than 400 includes mostly people who, unlike herself, look Chinese, said she has long been drawn to the stories of her Chinese relatives. Her mother, the writer Carolyn See, is Irish. "I had a greater affinity and tie to the Chinese side," she said.
(Though there is one relative on her mother's side whose influence may be felt in Shanghai Girls: her mother's father, a Texas newspaperman who at age 69 took up a new profession - writing pornography. See's books are not pornographic, but are unusually and unsparingly graphic in scenes of rape, childbirth, and general intimacies. Though, presumably, her grandfather's characters had more luck, and more fun, doing "husband-wife" things than See's do.)
See's curiosity about arranged marriages also comes from her own family, whose story she wrote in a nonfiction memoir: On Gold Mountain. In 1932, a great uncle went to China, saying: "Here's a little money, let's get all you boys wives." He brought back wives for his six sons, including the youngest, who was just 14 or 15.
"They all came back here," she said. "In China they had servants. Here, they were servants. Some of them actually had very happy marriages. Some of them were very unhappy and felt like they'd been sold a bill of goods. They lived here 70 years. They didn't get out much, never learned English. I grew up around women like that."
Although she has yet to write a novel set in the time of her own life - a sequel to Shanghai Girls, in the works at the insistence of her publisher, may change that - See says she is still present in all of her novels. "I'm sort of writing everything I know at that moment," she says. "The emotional landscape of my own life, the things I'm thinking about in life. The emotional places of the book are very autobiographical."
Contact Inquirer staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-823-0453 or email@example.com.
Tonight at 7:30, Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Admission: free. No ticket required. Information: 215-567-4341.