“China Dolls” by Lisa See. (Random House, $16).

Lisa See discusses and autographs copies of “China Dolls” at 7 p.m. Monday, March 9 at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave., Santa Fe and at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 10 at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

By David Steinberg

Lisa See’s  newest historical novel “China Dolls” is about the endurance of female friendship.

Three Asian-American teenagers of disparate backgrounds – Grace, Helen and Ruby – are trying to earn a living as dancers in San Francisco’s Chop Suey nightclub circuit, all the while maintaining their new-found friendship.

The story begins in 1938. The city by the bay is hosting a world’s fair. Storm clouds of militarism are building in Japan and in Germany. Those events color the atmosphere but the novel remains focused on these women –  their dreams, their families, their speech, their charm, their clothes – all wrapped in the milieu of the city.

Women’s fashions between the late Depression and post-World War II – and what influenced them – captured See’s interest. (She had wanted to be a costume designer as a teenager.

See said it was challenging to find ways to make Grace, Helen and Ruby distinctive. “Grace comes from small-town Ohio. She’s plain spoken. Ruby is all about slang and lingo. With Helen, growing up in a traditional way she uses a lot of Chinese aphorisms,” See said in a phone interview.

What happens to Ruby is loosely based on the events in the life of Dorothy Toy, who is now 97 years old. At one time, Toy was considered the Chinese Ginger Rogers, See said.

The author had explored the notion of friendship in her novel “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.” That book was based on a secret language used in a remote county of China for 1,000 years, she said.

“So it was part of the culture of language that you had a best friend for life,” See said.

“Later when I worked on ‘Shanghai Girls,” I was thinking, ‘What’s the difference between sisters and friends who say they’re closer than sisters?'”

With “China Dolls,” she wanted to probe the idea of friendship but in a group of three, partly because her mother has been in a group of three friends since seventh grade. “They’re 81 now. So I’ve watched them my entire life,” See said.

The novel takes the reader on a journey to a historically familiar time and place but rarely seen in literature through the lens of Asian Americans.

The Los Angeles Times praised “China Dolls”: “…packed with engaging period details about fashion, food, film and music and also addresses serious gender and geopolitical issues … a sweeping, turbulent tale of passion, friendship, good fortune, bad fortune, perfidy and the hope of reconciliation.”

The cloth edition of the novel made the New York Times bestseller list. It is her ninth book and, she said, got the best reviews of her entire career.

The Organization of Chinese American Women named See the 2001 National Woman of the Year. Her father’s side of the family is Chinese.

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