The close suggests See’s next setting may be the People’s Republic, a development sure to please her readership.

SHANGHAI GIRLS

Two sisters escape war-ravaged Shanghai, only to face discrimination and the threat of deportation in the United States.

See’s latest fictional exploration of the lives of Chinese women (Peony in Love, 2007, etc.) begins in 1937 Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city under imminent threat of Japanese invasion. As oblivious to rumors of their beloved city’s collapse as they are to their family’s circumstances, Pearl Chin and her younger sister May continue to shop, frequent nightclubs and pose for illustrator Z.G.’s advertising calendars featuring “Beautiful Girls.” However, Papa Chin, having lost his fortune to gambling debts, has sold his daughters into marriage to Sam and Vern, sons of Chinese-American entrepreneur Old Man Louie. After hasty weddings (only Pearl’s union, with Sam, is consummated), the brides refuse to accompany their husbands to California. When Shanghai is bombed and Papa abruptly disappears, the women and their mother join the stream of refugees fleeing the Japanese on foot. Along the way, Pearl and her mother are brutally raped by Japanese soldiers, while May hides. Their mother does not survive, but the Chins reach Hong Kong and embark for the United States, having decided, in desperation, to join their husbands. At San Francisco’s notorious Angel Island immigrant-internment center, May, pregnant by a boyfriend, prolongs the sisters’ already extended quarantine until she is able to give birth in secrecy. Pearl claims May’s daughter Joy as her own and Sam’s. Once reunited with their spouses in L.A.’s Chinese district, the former Shanghai princesses must acclimatize themselves to a life of drudgery, toiling in the Louie family’s curio shops and restaurants. Despite engrossing complications involving immigration issues and the impact of the ’50s Red Scare on Chinese-Americans, the Chinatown section, spanning 20 years, seems overlong. The final chapters, however, wherein Z.G.’s Beautiful Girl artwork resurfaces as Maoist propaganda and the FBI stalks the family, are worth the wait.

The close suggests See’s next setting may be the People’s Republic, a development sure to please her readership.

Pub Date: June 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6711-4

Page Count: 326

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2009

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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