Posted by: Jeanie F | July 11, 2011

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

I have to begin with a disclaimer: I am a sucker for books about China. From The Good Earth to Wild Swans and many, many more, the country, its people, and its history just fascinate me. So it’s very possible that I’m going to give Dreams of Joy a better review than it actually deserves, but I’ll strive for objectivity.

This book is a sequel to Lisa See’s earlier Shanghai Girls. Unlike Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, these books deal with 20th Century Chinese culture, both in China and in Los Angeles. See makes enough references to Shanghai Girls that you can follow Dreams of Joy without having read it, but it will make more sense if you have.

Dreams of Joy begins in the late 1950’s, the early days of Ma0’s regime. Joy is a young woman living in LA’s Chinatown. Her mother escaped from China prior to World War II and has slowly begun the process of enculturation. The family relationships are complicated – her “mother” is really her aunt, her “aunt” is her real mother, her stepfather/stepuncle has just committed suicide – you’ll have to wade your way through this part yourself. 

Joy heads off to the University of Chicago, where she is introduced to the teachings of Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book. It is the early days of China’s Cultural Revolution, prior to The Great Leap Forward. It’s easy for a young girl to be seduced by passionate political rhetoric.

Following an argument with her parents, Joy decides to run away to China and join the revolution. Frankly, this is one aspect of this book that I just couldn’t buy, but Joy had to get to China somehow, and this was the device that got her there.

Once in China, Joy meets up with her real father and accompanies him to a rural village outside of Hangzhou. Her mother follows her to China and on to the Dandelion Number Eight People’s Collective, where Joy has met and fallen in love with a Chinese peasant, Tao. They marry, and it is only then that Joy begins to understand the enormity of her error in coming to China.

By this time, Mao’s Great Leap Forward has begun, the agricultural disaster that led to the Great Famine in the 1960s. Joy and her family are caught up in this historical series of events that comprise the most interesting part of this somewhat melodramatic novel.

See has done tremendous research, and her depiction of the lives of people on the communes is detailed and descriptive. If it appears that she has soft-petaled some of the abuses of the Cultural Revolution, it’s because she has. However, I don’t think her objective was to recount the full sweep of the devastation it brought to the Chinese people, but to focus on a smaller scale: that of a single small collective. She’s done this successfully.

There are many implausible plot twists that you simply have to accept. If you are able to do this, you should find this book interesting and informative if not exactly believable. As Janet Maslin, writing for The New York Times, points out:

Dwarfed by matters of such historical magnitude, Joy seems less and less consequential as “Dreams of Joy” moves toward its ending. And the reader is dragged through the last stages of the plot, the ones that force Joy to come to her senses. “I thought I could use idealism to solve my inner conflicts,” she ultimately realizes, “but in healing my inner conflicts I destroyed my idealism.” “Dreams of Joy” takes a very slow boat to China to arrive at this destination.

Grade: B


  1. I want a follow-up book to this story.

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