On Gold Mountain by Lisa See: A Lesson in Reading the Synopsis Before Purchase

January 7, 2013 Asia, E-Readers, Family, Non Fiction 24

Hey Bookworms,

How is everyone doing today? I just finished slogging through Lisa See’s On Gold Mountain. It taught me a very important lesson. You should always read the synopsis of a book before you click purchase. This was on sale for the kindle so I snapped it up thinking, “Oh Lisa See! Always such great tidbits on Chinese cultures- quick reads too!” No. No, no, no.

This book was not fiction. It was the geneological account of Lisa See’s family. It wasn’t historical fiction. It was just history. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that you don’t get to take liberties in well researched factual accounts. While there were parts of this book that were enthralling, I found myself picking up bits and pieces of trivia that I’ve gotten out of See’s fictional work, and thinking, “Oh. That’s where she got this! Yeah. Works better when you can edit…”


This book was published in 1995 (which I discovered after-the-fact) which is well before most of the novels I’m familiar with by See. I really enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan I liked it so much that I picked up Peony in Love. That one was probably longer than necessary, but by the end I felt like I finally understood some of the Chinese religious traditions I’d learned about in college. The book brought them to life for me and I was pleased. Then I tackled Shanghai Girls a few years later and devoured it in a few days.

There’s so much in On Gold Mountain that I could see in the other books- the destruction of Chinatown and construction of the doomed China City, immigration fraud and paper sons, racial bias, religion, foot binding- it’s all there. It’s just not NEARLY as entertaining. Truth be told, I was into the book for about the first third of it. Once we started hitting the 50s and there was business launch after business launch, I started losing interest. The second half of the book was a slog. I just wanted to finish it so I could read something else since I’d already made it more than halfway through (that’s my DNF threshold. If I make it to the halfway point, I must finish it.)


The business launches and moves from one part of the city to another were lost on me. I have zero concept of the layout of San Francisco, Pasadena, Sacramento, Los Angeles, or any of the surrounding suburbs. Moving from one street to another meant ZERO to me. Also, there were a CRAP TON of characters. I’m not judging here, I get that Chinese tradition was different, but dude. Fong See had 4 wives. And 8 zillion children. And we learned every one of their stories. Plus uncles and cousins and then the Caucasian relatives? Spinning head.

Bottom line here? If you’re not a member of the See family or have an intense interest in the history of Chinese immigration and LA’s Chinatown, just don’t bother. You get all the juicy highlights of the family’s experiences in See’s fiction, and it’s a lot more concise and entertaining. There are some 450 page books I can read and not even notice the length. This felt like a thousand pages. Learn from my mistakes! Read the abstracts before buying the sale books!

24 Responses to “On Gold Mountain by Lisa See: A Lesson in Reading the Synopsis Before Purchase”

  1. Liesel Hill

    I’ve done that before too. I snapped up one that was free for the day on amazon, thinking (based on the cover and title) it was a paranormal romance. Now, that’s really not my genre of choice but i figured since it was free…Yeah. It was BDSM Erotica. I never go anywhere near those! Sigh. You live, you learn right? By the way, love the e-card thing. Did you make that?

  2. Rhian

    Oh no, no, no! I no longer read the blurb – they either give it away or have nothing to do with the story inside. I choose new books (as opposed to series) by starting to read them. If they suck me in, I buy them. I know that probably doesn’t work for e-books, though I have bought a couple after reading free “initial” chapters online.

    Have you read any Nicole Mones? She wrote Lost in Translation which I enjoyed and provided an interesting insight into Chinese culture. She also wrote a book called Cup of Light which is simply beautiful and that I would highly recommend.

  3. bwithbooks

    We’re all guilty of this. I read the blurbs but they tend to be quick cursory things that still allow me to be fooled.

    My greatest ally in finding a good book is its cover. If it has a good cover, i tend to just grab it anyway.

    • Words for Worms

      I love my e-books and the little photo is usually too small for me to say “ooooh cover art.” I’ll probably continue to pick up duds from time to time. A little ranting never hurt anyone though :).

      • bwithbooks

        Never! It’s a big disappointment when you pick something up and realise it’s a dud. Seems like a wasted relationship or something. And ebooks are very good at deceiving you. I have 10 I’ve sort of given up on but not quite.

  4. Leah

    Oh no! What a shame you had to learn that lesson the hard way! May your next read be the most intriguing, fascinating, unputdownable book ever written.

    • Words for Worms

      I’m reading Oliver Twist! After seeing Les Mis and falling in love with Gavroche all over again, I decided I needed a little more street urchin in my life :).

  5. Lyssapants

    Sounds like it should have been On Gold Mountain with Zombies.
    That way, you wouldn’t have needed to know the stories of the slower children.

  6. alenaslife

    So sorry you didn’t enjoy this one. I read it with my book club a few years ago and found the whole book fascinating. Of course I knew what I was getting into…

  7. Lisa G

    Generally I agree, I have made some killer mistakes by not reading the back of the book. HOWEVER! I stumbled across the BEST series EVER completely by accident. I bought all the leftovers at a used book sale for 5 bucks per box. It was big, and the cover was a pretty shade of blue so I began to read… Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. Admittedly, it’s the 3rd in the series, but since I also got Outlander in that same box, it worked out. LOL. Lucky mistake?

    • Words for Worms

      You must have been receiving my telepathic signals to read and love Diana Gabaldon! The universe has sent you a gift, dear Lisa. Now you can join in my squealing fan-girl ridiculousness as I anticipate the release of book 8 in the fall (hopefully!)

      • Lisa G

        Oh, this was 7 years ago or so. Lol. I’m rabid with anticipation. And indeed, listening to the audio books now. Nice to know how to pronounce the Gaelic bits.

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