Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

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In her most powerful novel yet, acclaimed author Lisa See returns to the story of sisters Pearl and May from Shanghai Girls, and Pearl’s strong-willed nineteen-year-old daughter, Joy. Reeling from newly uncovered family secrets, Joy runs away to Shanghai in early 1957 to find her birth father—the artist Z.G. Li, with whom both May and Pearl were once in love. Dazzled by him, and blinded by idealism and defiance, Joy throws herself into the New Society of Red China, heedless of the dangers in the Communist regime. Devastated by Joy’s flight and terrified for her safety, Pearl is determined to save her daughter, no matter the personal cost. From the crowded city to remote villages, Pearl confronts old demons and almost insurmountable challenges as she follows Joy, hoping for reconciliation. Yet even as Joy’s and Pearl’s separate journeys converge, one of the most tragic episodes in China’s history threatens their very lives.

My Review:

This story is both passionate and disturbing. The images still haunt me. International, intercultural, and intergenerational, Dreams of Joy is at once a multi-level love story and a history lesson. Through the eyes of those who suffered the most, it gives an up-close and personal glimpse into Red China and Chairman Mao’s failed “Great Leap Forward.” But amidst the atrocities brought on by Mao is the enduring love of a mother for her daughter.

Set in the late 1950s, Dreams of Joy chronicles a rebellious 19-year-old Joy who runs away from her home in Los Angeles’ China Town to find her birth father in China and to help build The People’s Republic of China, having bought into the idea that the new China will be a Utopia. She finds out, almost too late, that Communist China is no Utopia. Joy’s “mother” follows her to China to bring her back home and will stop at nothing to get her daughter to safety, even if it means sacrificing her own life.

This story is narrated, in turn, by Joy and her mother Pearl. It unfolds with a somewhat sheltered 19-year-old Joy preparing to run away to China, and like most 19 year olds, she thinks she knows everything there is to know about everything. But once she lands in Shanghai, the story becomes intense very quickly and maintains a steady pace throughout.

I was in a constant state of anxiety because whether the year is 1957 or 2012, how do you convince a teenage girl that the plan she has mapped out for her life is the wrong one, or that the man she insists loves her is really a horrible little turd? The answer is, you can’t. So as the reader, I empathized with the mother, who watches helplessly as her daughter digs herself deeper and deeper into unthinkable danger.

No matter how desperate Joy’s situation becomes, there is hope because her mother cannot and will not be deterred from saving her daughter. From a historical perspective, I learned more about Mao and Communist China than I cared to; images that I wish I could scrub from my brain have been burned into my memory. Still, Dreams of Joy earned five stars from me. I picked up this book randomly not knowing it was part of a series, so I look forward to reading the prequel, Shanghai Girls.

I found this quote by the mother to be a very accurate summation: “Mothers suffer; children will do what they want.”