Lisa See‘s previous novel, Shanghai Girls, followed the lives of sisters Pearl and May, first in China (racing to escape the invading Japanese) and then in Los Angeles (facing poverty and prejudice). Dreams of Joy picks up the family saga as Joy—May’s daughter, whom Pearl has raised as her own—flies to Communist China in the wake of her adopted father’s suicide and subsequent revelations about the secret of her parentage.
Arriving in 1958 on the cusp of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, Joy locates her birth father—the well-known but discredited artist Z.G.—and joins him as he travels first to the humble village of Green Dragon to teach art to the peasants and then to Peking as he restores his status with Mao himself. It’s easy for Joy to embrace Mao’s precepts while feasting at sumptuous banquets for artists, but less so when she returns to Green Dragon to work in the collective.
Meanwhile, Pearl follows Joy to Shanghai, determined to rescue her. But Pearl must also come to grips with her own past: old friends, her family home, and Z.G., who broke Pearl’s heart when he fell in love with May.
I remember reading Shanghai Girls hurriedly, gobbling up the dramatic episodes, drawn in to the plight of the two sisters whose lives are so intertwined. The novel ended with Joy’s running away, leaving me, and many other readers, hanging. So I was more than a little curious to discover what happened next. Although I don’t think Dreaming of Joy is See’s strongest effort (beginning with the title, which is cloying, not clever), it was still an absorbing glimpse into a little-known historical era.