“You don’t say much,” says the man who flirtatiously sidles up to Joy, the young heroine of Lisa See’s latest novel. He has a smile that’s “warm and embracing.” He leaves Joy “dumb with wonder and astonishment.” And he has a question for Joy’s father: “How many more pretty daughters have you left across China?” Perhaps the question is impertinent, but this is a man who can say whatever he wants to: Joy is fielding a come-on from Mao Zedong (毛澤東).
See’s formula for best-selling fiction steeped in Chinese culture and history has usually involved longer and more glamorous leaps through time. Peony in Love went back to the 17th century (and into the afterlife). Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was a 19th-century story. Even Shanghai Girls, to which Dreams of Joy is a sequel, went back to reasonably carefree pre-World War II Shanghai. See’s heroines (and readers) are allowed to enjoy lavish period detail before being forced through the melodramatic misery that her novels also feature.
But her latest book is set during a more recent and forbidding era: that of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which began in 1958 and mandated the collectivization of Chinese agriculture and led to catastrophic famine in the early 1960s. Since See presents these events through the eyes of Joy, a headstrong young woman who grew up in Los Angeles but rejects her family and the US to find out what China is like, Dreams of Joy might have been called “We Told You So.”
In Shanghai Girls, which is a necessary prelude to this new book, two sisters, May and Pearl, were in love with the same man, artist Z.G. Li. At the start of Dreams of Joy it is revealed to Joy that Z.G. is her father, and that even though Pearl reared her, May is her real mother. This is enough to make Joy decide that everything she thought she knew about herself is “a big fat lie” and send her fleeing across the Pacific. “Maybe China is my new home,” she tells herself. But the doubts begin when she gets there and is forced to give up — here’s a book club talking point, for sure — her decadent, reactionary bra.
Dreams of Joy
By Lisa See
Little emotional resonance is attached to Joy’s finding Z.G. and telling him that he is her father. Z.G. seems less interested in family ties than in teaching Joy about the new, Mao-sanctioned forms of art. “Together we will find redness in our work,” he tells his group of art students, which now includes Joy. But she has no redness and not much color of any kind. As is the case with many of See’s characters, she has been put on the page to relay well-researched details about life in China. (“I want to love China,” she says with typical acuity, “but everything is just so strange.”) She is also there to suffer.
Joy quickly and for no good reason falls in love with Feng Tao, a boy at the farming commune to which Z.G. brings her. “It was fated that you would come to my village,” he says. The village is Green Dragon Village, now known as Dandelion Number Eight People’s Commune.
Joy has not been there long before Tao asks for her hand in marriage, Maoist style. “You’re the right age,” he tells Joy. “I’m the right age. We aren’t blood relatives up to the third degree of relationship. Neither of us has any diseases. Let’s go to the Party secretary and his wife to ask permission to marry.”
Does this sound like a good idea to you? It doesn’t sound like a good idea to Pearl, who has followed Joy to China and fallen into her own set of adventures. Although these two characters are nominally very different, with Joy naive and Pearl a middle-age martyr, their voices sound similar; it’s their circumstances that differ. But each of them goes through the book illuminating readers about how this harsh new China works. For anyone who ever wondered how menstruating women living the no-frills Chinese commune life could make handy use of leaves, grass or sand when “the visit from the little red sister” arrives, See will provide details.