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'Shanghai Girls' beautifully tells immigrant experience

"SHANGHAI GIRLS," by Lisa See, Random House, 336 pages, $15 (reprint)

Except for Native Americans, in one way or another, all Americans are related to immigrants — each with their own story of survival and acceptance.

"Shanghai Girls," by Lisa See, is the story of two sisters — immigrants looking for their place in this "vast land of freedoms."

The year is 1937, and Pearl and May Chin are as close as any sisters can be. The two work as Beautiful Girls in Shanghai, posing for calendars, posters and advertisements. While most families would be ashamed of the girls' work, their parents don't mind because of the added income.

The feudal days of China are over, or so Pearl and May think. That changes, however, when they return from a night of partying to learn their father has arranged marriages for the both of them to a pair of brothers from America. This way you'll be able to stay together, he tells them, but that offers little comfort.

Despite their revulsion at their father's arrangement, Pearl and May are good daughters and go through with the marriage, planning to never actually join their husbands in San Francisco.

But there's more to the story than just an arranged marriage, and suddenly members of the Chin family are running for their lives. Bad men want Pearl and May's father, and on top of that, the Japanese have invaded the country.

After an encounter with Japanese soldiers leaves their mother dead and Pearl fighting for her life, the girls decide that joining their husbands in San Francisco is their only real option.

The two arrive in America, agreeing to keep each other's secrets and to above all stay together. The sisters aren't the only ones hiding their pasts, though, and as time passes, they learn the true power and pain that comes with family.

The Chinese immigrant experience is beautifully expressed against the backdrop of the bonds of sisterhood in "Shanghai Girls," which is now available in paperback.

See never resorts to in-your-face tactics; rather her voice is subtle and sublime as the sisters' story elegantly unfolds into a gripping and at times heart-breaking novel.

That is not to say that everything in "Shanghai Girls" is beautiful. It's a sad book. The pain of ostracism, war and death makes its presence known. But while hard elements are present in the book, they are never exploited, and an occurrence of rape is thankfully more alluded to instead of described in detail.

See has captured the journey toward becoming an American with an enthralling grace. She sets up a narrative that lends itself to continued dialogue, leaving readers to finish the story in their own minds.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com