Dreams of Joy is about a 19-year-old American girl who discovered that she wasn’t Pearl and Sam’s biological daughter, but May’s biological daughter, and her biological father is an artist in China. The author, Lisa See, maintained Joy’s (the 19-year-old) relationship among everyone in the book as they were to Joy before this bombshell.
Pearl – actually Joy’s aunt, but she’s still Joy’s mom since she raised Joy from birth, married to Sam, and May’s older sister
Sam – actually Joy’s uncle, but he’s still Joy’s dad since he raised Joy from birth, married to Pearl, committed suicide because of the pressure from the American government when they got word that he had ties to Communist China, and Joy blamed herself for his suicide because she was the one who joined a pro-Communist China club in college
May – Joy’s biological mother and played aunt for 19 years
Z.G. – Joy’s biological father, didn’t know he had a daughter until she followed him home, and a famous painter
The tangled web of relationships between Pearl, May, and Z.G. can be found in their earlier lives – Shanghai Girls – where Pearl and May were models in Shanghai, China, and Z.G., a painter, would paint the sisters. The sisters had a fantastic time, living the good life when they came from a father who was a gambler and owed to the extent of abandoning his family by going into hiding. Pearl and May both had feelings for Z.G. but Z.G. had more feelings for May.
By the shock of lies and betrayal among the three women (Pearl, May, and Joy), Joy took money that Pearl saved up and flew to China to find her biological father, only knowing his name is Z.G. and he was an artist. The story in Dreams of Joy is set in 1950s China, where the Great Leap Forward was budding. Joy didn’t know it was so difficult to get to China but when she arrived, she quickly found her father. However, the government and Artist’s Association sent Z.G. to the countryside to educate the masses, and he took her along. There were plenty of difficulties along the way, including but not limited to trying to get around the government and starvation.
Themes include what constitutes a family, the bond between a mother and daughter, the bond between sisters, overcoming PTSD, love, and reality disguised in idealism.
The book has 2 voices – Pearl’s and Joy’s, switching back and forth – but for a good portion on the first half of the book, it sounded like Pearl and Joy had the same voice – they were the same impulsive person. It’s understandable that Joy, who’s 19, hurt by her “boyfriend”, lied to by May and Pearl, and blamed herself for Sam’s death. Pearl, who’s wiser and more mature, is supposed to be rational, after all, she kept up this charade for 19 years and disciplined Joy as necessary. For a significant portion of the book, Pearl held on to the jealousy and childish competition with May even across the Pacific Ocean, with the mentality that she loves Z.G. and he was supposed to be hers. At a couple of points in the novel, Pearl acted on this lust for Z.G. to prove that she and Z.G. belong together, but from an objective point of view, Pearl did it out of revenge and jealousy. At about 3/5 into the book, the voices became distinguishably different.
It took forever for Pearl to locate Joy, but it took Joy almost no time to find Z.G., which I think is impractical given that China still had A LOT of people everywhere in a big and busy city where Joy had never been to, and Joy didn’t even know what he looked like.
There were two memorable parts of the book for me. The first was when the older women in the village talked about what they used for their monthly visitor. Dudes who aren’t educated in what comes out of females during their time of the month should stay a bit behind the females while reading the novel to be alerted about which pages and passages to avoid.
The other was all the bodies that littered the road when Pearl went to rescue Joy, Tao (Joy’s husband who should’ve been left for dead), and their daughter from starvation. In Chinese history, during this portion of the Great Leap Forward, there were indeed people who reported to the government of how much rice was produced and lied about their production on paper to make their village/town look good. Widespread famines occurred because people who didn’t know how to run a farm was running the village/commune/collective rice and other crop productions, and there was nation-wide starvation. At the time, people thought it was just their village or just their town experiencing this shortage, but people still don’t know how many people had starved to death during this time. Those at the top also feared reporting about the truth because they’ve heard about Mao handing out really bad consequences to people who report constructive criticism, despite him telling people that he welcomed constructive criticism. At this point of his life, Mao was crazy and out of control.
Dreams of Joy is entertaining if you can get over the constant repetition of, “She is my daughter” or “Joy is my daughter” from Pearl’s voice. It’s likely that Lisa See used that to emphasize that Pearl is Joy’s mother despite not being her biological mother, but toward the end of the book, readers already know this through Pearl’s actions, and this is just overkill, especially given the length of the book. The starvation is quite vivid so don’t read it when you’re hungry.