War Games in the Dressing Room: Lisa See’s China Dolls

Who else loves historical fiction? When we think WW2, we usually imagine the mud streaked faces of soldiers and prisoners, the thump of marching boots, the stink of camps.

Standing apart of the countless books already written about WW2, Lisa See’s China Dolls presents the war from a usually forgotten, more glamorous perspective: that of three Chinese nightclub girls dancing their way into stardom. These girls, Grace, Ruby and Helen come from vastly different backgrounds– Grace is completely Americanised and has escaped from her abusive father in Plain City Ohio, Helen lives in her family’s restrictive Chinese compound in San Francisco, while Ruby is Japanese from Hawaii. They chance upon each other just as the war is beginning to pick up speed, in the late ’30s, in San Francisco, where they all score at a nightclub audition. Being Orientals, their exotic features win them many opportunities over the years, as agents and audiences alike want a taste of the easternness they bring to the table.

The narrative point of view alternates between the three girls, giving a pretty balanced perspective of nightclub life during the wartime, due to how different their personalities are. Ruby is carefree and loud-mouthed, the most provocative of them all. She garners fame for her fan dance and bubble dance, where the dancer is fully naked behind large fans or a giant translucent bubble. Grace is extremely talented, adapting well to all styles of dance and Helen is more conservative. Grace and Ruby both fall for the same guy, Joe, in a tiff that threatens the girls’ friendship multiple times. Meanwhile, Helen becomes pregnant by an Occidental (a White man), and marries a gay men as the marriage serves to protect both of them against laws intolerant of intermarriage and homosexuality. The lives of these femme fatales are glamorous on the outside, but they each hold secrets and fears that they keep, even from each other, for most of the novel.

See’s vivid imageries and descriptions allure the reader into the excessive, ritzy scene of nightclubs in the ’30s. She reproduces quite clearly the catty atmosphere of the common dressing room, the gathering place of a group of young girls desperately clawing their way to the top of the food chain. The performances, seen through the girls’ eyes, retain their excitement, the scene sweeping its way through the crowds, glinting in the spotlights. This polished veneer has the dark underbelly of the war: the threat of losing their loved ones at any given time, the heightened sense of fear and paranoia about traitors and enemies that pervade the country.

However, beyond the well-described nightclub-during-wartime atmosphere the novel succeeds in getting across, I must say that as a whole, the novel is a letdown. The story is badly told, with its character development inconsistent and awkward. Perhaps it tried to cover too much ground; the alternating views, instead of giving a more complete story of the girls’ relationship overtime, creates many gaps and raises many unanswered questions.

The constant alternating between the characters results in extremely shallow character development: Ruby is back to her old self in no time after months in a concentration camp. Grace falls in and out of love at the drop of a hat. We jump from Grace’s view to Ruby’s, only to discover that Grace’s personality has changed from generous to callous within the span of a page, with no explanation whatsoever. In our time with Helen, the narrative constantly reinforces that she is the supportive, practical friend of the three. At the end of the novel, she suddenly turns traitorous due to her jealously about Grace’s love for Ruby, which is in complete contradiction to her prior character development.

The descriptions of the girls’ relationship is also frustratingly touch-and-go. They cause each other what should be deep hurt. The betrayals between the three of them are no joke: Helen gets Ruby arrested and put in a concentration camp, Grace sees Ruby sleeping with her sweetheart, then steals her spotlight, fiancé and fame. Helen tries to break Ruby and Grace apart. Yet, after a simple confession and a round of tears, all is well again.

When we reach the happy end of the novel, in the 1980s, Grace reminisces about their friendship: she concludes that it is the strongest, closest bonds she has in her life. Yet, throughout the story, their friendship is tenuous and superficial at best, their ties bound by these confessions and forgivings that hardly justify the hurts the cause each other. The best explanation I can give, if I give See the benefit of the doubt, is that this superficiality is meant to mirror that of showbiz life.

The only part I really liked about the novel is at the very end, when Helen’s daughter-in-law interviews Grace about her golden nightclub years: what did she think about the racism the ‘slant-eyed girls’ took advantage of? Did she think it was okay to perpetuate the stereotypes her career thrived on? At the very least, See acknowledges the racism and xenophobia of that era; the ‘no-no’ showgirls are famous they way they are because of their over-sexualised exoticness. Disappointingly, Grace refuses to respond to these questions, putting an end to what could have been See’s opportunity to discuss and confront the tension of her novel’s provocative topics.

This is the first bad review I am giving on my blog, but this was truly a disappointing read, with many plot gaps and inconsistent characters.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, don’t forget to check out the rest of my blog!

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