published Sunday, August 7th, 2011

'Dreams of Joy' hurt by too many coincidences, heavy-handedness

By Adera Causey

With its cloak of secrecy, Cultural Revolution-era China has long been a source of fascination and speculation for many Westerners. Lisa See heightens this curiosity by immersing us within this culture in her latest novel, "Dreams of Joy."

Joy in the title references not only an emotion but also a young woman, the daughter of one of the Shanghai Girls who served as the main characters of her best-selling previous book. This new novel, clearly written to court the fan base from the earlier book, also is a full story in its own right, accessible to those without knowledge of the preceding tale. She brings us into the mind and life of Joy, a mid 20th-century college student of Chinese descent who grew up wholly in Los Angeles and, prior to college, had been encouraged to be as westernized as possible.

When away at school, her involvement in a campus heritage group brings about a socialist zeal for the workings of Mao. Socialist solutions begin to look increasingly attractive to her after her father, or rather the man she thought was her father, dies and her mother shares family secrets that reveal her to have a new set of birth parents.

A vicious brew of anger, rebellion and desperation lead her to run away to China to find her real birth father and to separate herself from her problems. And as can be expected in a book of this type, through this experience she learns much more than she ever expects.

She quickly finds her father and is initially enamored of his glamorous life and success as an official painter for the government, an artist celebrated by Mao himself. She becomes easily swept up in the Revolution, declaring herself a true red, a reformed westerner who goes so far as to move to a collective and marry a peasant named Tao after a whirlwind courtship.

Even her mother, Pearl, who follows her to China, and her birth father, artist ZG, are unable to dissuade her from this course as she gets quickly lost in the revolution and literally cut off from the rest of the world. It is only when she becomes a mother herself and is pushed to near starvation that she begins to fully recognize the hypocrisy and contradictions within the society she once so admired. And it is only then that she is ready to accept help from her family as she plots her inevitable escape.

This plot is littered with disposable love stories -- Joy's naive-turned-vindictive love for her husband, Pearl's mature love for a Shanghai professor with whom she reunites as a contrast with her leftover puppy love for ZG, the triumvirate familial love of and reconciliation among mother-aunt-daughter, and the growing love between father and prodigal daughter. And with each type of love comes a revelation on meaning of family and loyalty delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

See's well-sketched presentation of Cultural Revolution-era China offers a fascinating backdrop to the story, but it is never allowed to be more than that as a "love conquers all" attitude seems to offer a rose-colored glass lens to anyone entering into this space otherwise cluttered with desperation. Further, the incredible frequency of coincidences and unlikely reunions that bring the long estranged into instant relationship suggests a fairy tale-dust solution to even the most serious problems.

Flashes of See's gifts seen in her first book can be seen here in her comfort in developing a fully sensory immersive space. But it proves to be mere smoke and mirrors in a story that has a compulsion to oversaturation of feel-good ethos to sate those seeking not a probing story but rather a pleasant fairy tale, a puff of magic applied to "Dreams of Joy."

Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.

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