Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2012

Dreams of Joy (2011), by Lisa See

Dreams of JoyBack at work after the long summer break I was in the mood for a bit of light fiction, and at GoodReads I’d picked up on conversation about Lisa’s See’s latest book set in Communist China.  Dreams of Joy is a sequel to Shanghai Girls, which I haven’t read, but I enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (see my review) so I borrowed Dreams of Joy  from the library.

The initial premise isn’t terribly convincing: Joy, an American teenager of 19, is so devastated by family revelations about the past that she takes off by herself to find her father in Shanghai.  Miraculously she finds him, starts art classes with him and lo! turns out to be amazingly talented with the brush.  But there’s not enough self-flagellation in that to make up for the problems she’s caused back in America,  so off she goes to live in a commune.  There she cheerfully gives up all the comforts of western life and goes to work in the fields alongside the rest of the peasants in Green Dragon Village.  She submits to all kinds of disagreeable privations, to constant sniping about her decadent Western origins, to  backbreaking work, to bad weather and to bad food – and she miraculously learns to hold her tongue in a way that contrasts markedly with the way assertive American teenagers of the period were portrayed on our TV screens.

But if you can suspend disbelief about all this, the story of Joy and Pearl’s visit to China in the late 1950s is very interesting.  Pearl, Joy’s putative mother, is so aghast at these events that she takes off for China after her daughter.  There she meets up with her old flame  – there is some complicated backstory about Pearl and her sister May (the original Shanghai girls) – and so there is more than just the relationship with her daughter to sort out.  What makes these romantic elements interesting is the setting, because this is the period of Mao Tse-Tung’s Great Leap Forward and the resultant famine which caused the deaths of millions of people in China.  (Estimates of the mortality rate vary from 18 to 45 million people, and the truth will probably never be known.)

Lisa See is a very prominent writer in the US, and this novel hurtled up the bestseller lists, so I think we can assume that it was properly researched.  What See achieves is to bring to life the reality of the sloganeering, the ‘struggle sessions’, the absurdly unachievable agricultural targets, and the way that peasants had to confront directions from The Great Helmsman to plant crops and harvest them in ways that they knew from centuries of practical farming would not work.  There are distressing scenes representing the misery and desperation of the famine, and there are also examples of the ways in which some people were able to circumvent the shortages through corruption and the black market.  Even though this is a very negative portrayal of China, I think that  –  in what is now being called ‘the Asian Century’ –  there is value in Lisa See’s fans learning about a period of Chinese history in this palatable way.

The last part of the story seems to have been written with a movie script in mind.  Joy and her mother and other characters I won’t name to avoid spoilers have to escape if they are to survive.   Events conspire to create enough dramatic dialogue and cliff-hangers to have an audience enthralled.  I’ll be very surprised if it hasn’t been optioned already.

You can read more about Lisa See here.

Author: Lisa See
Title: Dreams of Joy
Publisher: Random House (Large Print Edition), 2011
ISBN: 9780739378182
Source: Kingston Library

Fishpond: Dreams of Joy


  1. I do like Lisa See’s books but I haven’t read this one yet. Not sure that I would have attempted it without reading Shanghai Girls given how closely linked the two books are.


    • I might see if I can get hold of that one at the library too. But not until I’ve cleared some of the ‘currently reading’ books off the bedside table, there are too many of them!


      • Lisa I gave both these books top marks when I read them this year. I continue to be a fan of Lisa See. I have just read Peony in Love which is very different but again an insight into the Chinese culture and very well researched.


        • Yes, she’s an author I like to keep an eye on. I like the way she’s bringing an understanding of Chinese history to readers of general fiction.


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