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.
Praise for Dreams of Joy
“[Lisa] See is a gifted historical novelist. . . . The real love story, the one that’s artfully shown, is between mother and daughter, and aunt and daughter, as both of the women who had a part in making Joy return to China come to her rescue. . . . [In Dreams of Joy,] there are no clear heroes or villains, just people who often take wrong turns to their own detriment but for the good of the story, leading to greater strength of character and more durable relationships.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“A heartwarming story of heroic love between a mother and daughter . . . No writer has better captured the voice and heart of Chinese culture.”—Bookreporter
“Once again, See’s research feels impeccable, and she has created an authentic, visually arresting world.”—The Washington Post
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.02(w) x 5.24(h) x 0.86(d)|
About the Author
Hometown:Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:February 18, 1955
Place of Birth:Paris, France
Education:B.A., Loyola Marymount University, 1979
Read an Excerpt
THE WAIL OF a police siren in the distance tears through my body. Crickets whir in a never- ending chorus of blame. My aunt whimpers in her twin bed at the other end of the screened porch we share— a reminder of the misery and embarrassment from the secrets she and my mother threw at each other during their argument tonight. I try to listen for my mother in her room, but she’s too far away. That silence is painful. My hands grab the bedsheets, and I struggle to focus on an old crack in the ceiling. I’m desperately attempting to hang on, but I’ve been on a precipice since my father’s death, and now I feel as though I’ve been pushed over the edge and am falling.
Everything I thought I knew about my birth, my parents, my grandparents, and who I am has been a lie. A big fat lie. The woman I thought was my mother is my aunt. My aunt is actually my mother. The man I loved as my father was not related to me at all. My real father is an artist in Shanghai whom both my mother and aunt have loved since before I was born. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg— as Auntie May might say. But I was born in the Year of the Tiger, so before the gnawing blackness of guilt about my dad’s death and the anguish I feel about these revelations overpower me, I grip the sheets tighter, set my jaw, and try to force my emotions to cower and shrink before my Tiger ferocity. It doesn’t work.
I wish I could talk to my friend Hazel, but it’s the middle of the night. I wish even more that I could be back at the University of Chicago, because my boyfriend, Joe, would understand what I’m going through. I know he would.
It’s two in the morning by the time my aunt drifts off to sleep and the house seems quiet. I get up and go to the hall, where my clothes are kept in a linen closet. Now I can hear my mother weeping, and it’s heartbreaking. She can’t imagine what I’m about to do, but even if she did, would she stop me? I’m not her daughter.
Why should she stop me? I quickly pack a bag. I’ll need money for where I’m going, and the only place I know to get it will bring me more disgrace and shame. I hurry to the kitchen, look under the sink, and pull out the coffee can that holds my mother’s savings to put me through college. This money represents all her hopes and dreams for me, but I’m not that person anymore. She’s always been cautious, and for once I’m grateful. Her fear of banks and Americans will fund my escape.
I look for paper and a pencil, sit down at the kitchen table, and scrawl a note.
Mom, I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t understand this country anymore.
I hate that it killed Dad. I know you’ll think I’m confused and foolish. Maybe I am, but I have to find answers. Maybe China is my real home . . .
I go on to write that I mean to find my real father and that she shouldn’t worry about me. I fold the paper and take it to the porch. Auntie May doesn’t stir when I put the note on my pillow. At the front door, I hesitate. My invalid uncle is in his bedroom at the back of the house. He’s never done anything to me. I should tell him good- bye, but I know what he’ll say. “Communists are no good. They’ll kill you.”
I don’t need to hear that, and I don’t want him to alert my mother and aunt that I’m leaving.
I pick up my suitcase and step into the night. At the corner, I turn down Alpine Street, and head for Union Station. It’s August 23, 1957, and I want to memorize everything because I doubt I’ll ever see Los Angeles Chinatown again. I used to love to stroll these streets, and I know them better than anyplace else in the world. Here, I know everyone and everyone knows me. The houses— almost all of them clapboard bungalows— have been what I call Chinafied, with bamboo planted in the gardens, pots with miniature kumquat trees sitting on porches, and wooden planks laid on the ground on which to spread leftover rice for birds. I look at it all differently now. Nine months at college— and the events of tonight— will do that. I learned and did so much at the University of Chicago during my freshman year. I met Joe and joined the Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association. I learned all about the People’s Republic of China and what Chairman Mao is doing for the country, all of which contradicts everything my family believes. So when I came home in June, what did I do? I criticized my father for seeming as if he were fresh off the boat, for the greasy food he cooked in his café, and for the dumb TV shows he liked to watch
These memories trigger a dialogue in my head that I’ve been having since his death. Why didn’t I see what my parents were going through? I didn’t know that my father was a paper son and that he’d come to this country illegally. If I’d known, I never would have begged my dad to confess to the FBI— as if he didn’t have anything to hide. My mother holds Auntie May responsible for what happened, but she’s wrong. Even Auntie May thinks it was her fault. “When the FBI agent came to Chinatown,” she confessed to me on the porch only a few hours ago, “I talked to him about Sam.” But Agent Sanders never really cared about my dad’s legal status, because the first thing he asked about was me.
And then the loop of guilt and sorrow tightens even more. How could I have known that the FBI considered the group I joined a front for Communist activities?
We picketed stores that wouldn’t allow Negroes to work or sit at the lunch counter.
We talked about how the United States had interned American citizens of Japanese descent during the war. How could those things make me a Communist? But they did in the eyes of the FBI, which is why that awful agent told my dad he’d be cleared if he ratted out anyone he thought was a Communist or a Communist sympathizer.
If I hadn’t joined the Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association, the FBI couldn’t have used that to push my father to name others— specifically me. My dad never would have turned me in, leaving him only one choice. As long as I live I will never forget the sight of my mother holding my father’s legs in a hopeless attempt to take his weight off the rope around his neck, and I will never ever forgive myself for my role in his suicide.
Reading Group Guide
1. Joy is frequently described in terms of her Tiger astrological sign. In Dreams of Joy, where do you see her acting true to her Tiger nature? Where do you see her acting un-Tiger-like?
2. Many of us grew up believing that the People’s Republic of China was “closed,” and that it remained that way until President Nixon “opened” it. Certainly Pearl (and even Joy, to a great extent) go to China with preconceived ideas of what they’ll see and experience. In what ways are they right—or wrong?
3. Does seeing the world through Joy’s eyes help you to understand Pearl? Similarly, does Pearl give insights into her daughter?
4. The novel’s title, Dreams of Joy, has many meanings. What does the phrase mean to the different characters in the novel? To Lisa? To the reader?
5. In many ways Dreams of Joy is a traditional coming-of-age novel for Joy. Lisa has said that she believes it’s also a coming-of-age novel for Pearl and May. Do you agree? If so, how do these three characters grow up? Do they find their happy endings?
6. Although May plays a key role in Dreams of Joy, she is always off stage. How do you feel about this? Would you rather have May be an onstage figure in this novel?
7. Pearl has some pretty strong views about motherhood. At one point she asks, “What tactic do we, as mothers, use with our children when we know they’re going to make, or have already made, a terrible mistake? We accept blame” (page 139). Later, she observes, “Like all mothers, I needed to hide my sadness, anger, and grief ” (page 177). Do you agree with her? Does her attitude about mothering change during the course of the novel?
8. Joy’s initial perception of China is largely a projection of her youthful idealism. What are the key scenes that force her to adjust her beliefs and her feelings in this regard?
9. Describe the roles that Tao, Ta-ming, Kumei, and Yong play in Dreams of Joy. Why are they so important, thematically, to the novel?
10. Food—or the severe lack of it—are of critical importance in Dreams of Joy. How does food affect Joy’s growth as a person? Pearl’s?
11. Let’s consider the men—whether present in the novel as living characters or not—for a moment. What influence do Sam, Z.G., Pearl’s father, Dun, and Tao have on the story? How do they show men at their best and worst? Are any of these characters completely good—or completely bad?
12. Dreams of Joy is largely a novel about mothers and daughters, but it’s also about fathers and daughters. How do Joy’s feelings toward Sam and Z.G. change over the course of the novel? Does Pearl’s attitude toward her father change in any way?
13. There are several moments in the novel when people have to choose the moral or ethical thing to do. Where are those places? What purpose do they play? And why do you think Lisa choose to write them?
14. Z.G. quotes a seventeenth-century artist when he says, “Art is the heartbeat of the artist.” How has this idea influenced his life? What impact does this concept have on Joy?
15. Ultimately, Dreams of Joy is about “mother love”—the love that Pearl feels for Joy, Joy feels for her mother, Joy experiences with the birth of her daughter, and the ongoing struggle between Pearl and May over who is Joy’s true mother. In what ways do secrets, disappointments, fears, and overwhelming love affect mother love in the story?