Review by Ann McDonald
San Francisco, 1938: The World Fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams.
‘China Dolls’ is a very good, well-written story about unprecedented friendships that spans extraordinary levels of time and events. It is 1938 in pre-World War II San Francisco, where we meet three girls: Grace Lee is from the mid west with very little in her pocket but plenty of bruises and bad memories from her father and buckets of talent, thanks to her mentor in school and she is hoping to find a job in a revue at the World Fair that is due to open soon. Helen Fong, an American-born Chinese, lives in a compound in Chinatown with extended family and has to protect her reputation like it was Jade. And then we have Ruby Tom, a beautiful, ambitious young woman who defies convention whenever she can.
In their search for work, they wind up auditioning as dancers at Forbidden City, an upscale night club just outside of Chinatown, as they want to cater to a white clientele. Grace and Helen move through the auditions and get hired but Ruby doesn’t make the cut and gets a job at the World Fair in a shady and naughty show that exposes quite a bit of her, even with her feathers. Ultimately, they all end up at the Forbidden City together. Woven into the girls’ stories is a background of prejudice and disrespect for oriental girls by customers and family. Then Pearl Harbor happens and everyone is scared out of their minds.
They have heard of the internment camps and the treatment of the Japanese there but of the girls is betrayed, she had kept hidden the fact that she was Japanese but she survives the camps and in 1948 they all find themselves at a crossroads. A lot has happened in the ten years since they first met and you will enjoy the journey. I had glimpses into a culture I knew very little about and I found it fascinating. This book will be going on my book shelf. Highly recommended.
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