(Note: This review contains spoilers for Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. It would be difficult to avoid Shanghai Girls spoilers here, as Dreams of Joy is a sequel to that book, but I promise Dreams of Joy will not be spoiled here.)
I have been a fan of Lisa See ever since I first read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan four years ago. I’ve found all of the books by her that I’ve read well-written and engaging, and every time I read something new from Lisa See I find myself raving to my friends- whose eyes quickly glaze over when they realize I’m not going to run out of air anytime soon. I was particularly excited to read Dreams of Joy, as it’s the sequel to Shanghai Girls and I’ve been at the edge of my seat since I finished that book in 2009. I had high expectations, and Dreams of Joy did not disappoint.
This book starts where Shanghai Girls left off. It’s 1957, and 19 year old Joy is reeling from her father’s suicide, which she blames herself for, and has just discovered that the woman she thought was her mother- Pearl- is actually her aunt, and the woman she thought was her aunt-May- is actually her birth mother. The man she called her father was not related to her by blood. Her biological father is living in communist China, and has no idea Joy even exists. Angry at her mother and aunt for lying to her, and -thinking she is responsible for the suicide of the man who raised her- angry at herself, she runs away to the People’s Republic of China to meet her biological father shortly before the “The Great Leap Forward”.
Like a lot of See’s books that I’ve read, Dreams of Joy was difficult to get into at first. I had a hard time relating to Joy at first, and found myself thinking of her as an idiot for the first few chapters, and then beginning to worry about her for the next few chapters, and finally cheering her on for the last half of the book. There were times when I wanted to scream, “What are you thinking!?” for every terrible decision I saw her make. There were times when I wanted to crawl into the story, smack her across the face, then give her a big hug and a piece of bread. Meanwhile, Pearl’s actions to protect and save her daughter- and yes, while Pearl did not give birth to Joy the story makes it clear that Joy is still her daughter- are heroic, and there is a time toward the end where “the Dragon” rises to protect her family that is both heart-stopping in its intensity and beautiful in its emotion. For this reason, it is almost impossible to put this book down for the last few chapters. Though my stomach was grumbling at me and there were chores to be done, the story’s urgency leaked into the real world, and it seemed more important to know how it ended.
Dreams of Joy was much more intense than Shanghai Girls. The dangers in the story are much more present throughout, and there is much more at stake. While Shanghai Girls was focused on carefully crafting the character's emotions and relationships, Dreams of Joy focuses more on the outer political and social sphere, and its effect on the characters, while still maintaining the heart and soul of the first book. I found Dreams of Joy to be an incredible and exciting conclusion to Shanghai Girls, and I highly recommend it.