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!