With each new novel, Lisa See gets better and better. Each work is more tightly woven, richer with information, its characters more memorable than the last.
In her previous novel, "Shanghai Girls" (2009), See gave us an unforgettable portrait of Shanghai, and of two sisters thriving in that world of beauty and delicacy — until history intrudes and forces them to leave it all behind for an uncertain future in Los Angeles.
Joy, 19 in 1957 and growing up in Los Angeles' Chinatown, has just made several powerful discoveries: that her aunt (one of the sisters) is her biological mother; and her father, who has just committed suicide, was in the U.S. illegally. He was not even her biological father, she learns, and his suicide was partially her fault because by participating in civil rights organizations in college, she has called attention to her family and his citizenship status (these are the feverish McCarthy years).
Armed with her actual lineage after a big fight with her mother and aunt, Joy takes some money from the family cookie jar and flies to China to find her biological father, a well-known artist in Shanghai. Along the way, she must turn over her passport and convince the authorities that she wants to join the brave new experiment that is Mao's Great Leap Forward. The novel is front-loaded with all of these revelations, and continues to move extremely quickly until the very end, but happily the action is not all external.
This is often the difference between forgettable and unforgettable books. Characters must change when they are given a 350-page stage, or we will surely lose interest. So much happens to Joy and to her Aunt Pearl, who goes looking for her — both must jettison core beliefs and become supple, flexible players in their own lives.
Pearl, who has not been back to China in 20 years, must grapple with the belief that Joy's father, the artist Z.G. Li, was the true love of her life, though he loved her sister, May, Joy's biological mother. She must also adjust to the reality that the new China is vastly different from the one she left. She does find Joy but is unable to persuade her to return to America, so she settles in for the long haul — one of the best depictions of the true spirit of motherhood you'll ever see in fiction.
Soon after her arrival in Shanghai, Joy finds her father and immediately follows him to a small village, a collective where he teaches the local people how to make posters. Joy falls in love with the spirit of the collective, and with one of the young farmers.
Joy marries the farmer, Tao, and moves into a two-room shack for 12 people. Her initial enthusiasm for the Great Leap wanes with backbreaking labor and various horrifying developments.
In the end, it's a story with characters who enter a reader's life and illuminate the decisions and stories that make up human history.
"Dreams of Joy"
By Lisa See
Random House; 368 pages; $26