I've been hesitant to read this one because I didn't enjoy Shanghai Girls, the novel that preceded this one, that much (what is the good term for that? I feel like that prequel is inaccurate because to me a prequel is something that takes place previously but was written/filmed afterwards ... I would never call the first part of Harry Potter a prequel to Part II though I have seen the word prequel used in that kind of context; I just think it's incorrect). Shanghai Girls started off well enough, but by the end of the novel, it just felt too much like a rehashing of any other novel about the difficulties of being an Asian immigrant to the United States. I don't think I would have been quite as disappointed if the novel hadn't started off strong, and if I hadn't had such high expectations due to Lisa See's previous novels. I also think I was getting irritated with the main character who did tend to focus on the negative in life and the things she didn't have (so it was nice when her sister called her out on that).
Having said that, I enjoyed Dreams of Joy more than I did Shanghai Girls. I'm not sure if that is due to lowered expectations, or if it is because she dealt with a topic that I'm familiar with in passing, but haven't read too much about in fiction or otherwise. At the end of Shanghai Girls, Joy finds out the truth about her parents, and decides to run away to Communist China (this novel takes place in the '50s). The chapters alternate between Joy as she sees Mao's China, and Pearl as she follows her daughter to save her. Joy's parents have always warned her against the Communist regime of China, but in college, she joined a student group that discussed the positives of Communism and the community it creates. As a result, 19 year old and idealistic Joy is an extremely annoying and naive character for the first half of her chapters, always seeing the positive, ignoring the bad despite the half clues her birth father, Z.G. Lin occasionally gives her.
While Joy views her situation through rose-colored glasses, Pearl is also surprised when it isn't quite as bad as she expected. However, Pearl catches on to the general lack of trust between people much more quickly than Joy does. While it doesn't Pearl too long to track Joy down, convincing her to return to the US is another matter. Pearl decides to stay in China as long as Joy stays, and as a result, the novel ends up showing the effects of Mao's Great Famine from both the city perspective since Pearl settles in Shanghai, and the country side's view where Joy lives. I think previous accounts I had read of this were from the city perspective but it affected the country-side first and harder, because much of the food that was grown was collected up, and distributed in the cities, leading to the odd circumstance that the people growing food had even less than city dwellers.
Joy eventually wises up and becomes less irritating, and even Pearl works through some of her issues from the previous novel. I liked it more than I expected to, and to someone that has read Shanghai Girls already, I would certainly recommend reading this sequel. I also think this would work as a stand alone novel, though knowledge of the previous novel would help understand some of the dynamics. Still, See does a good job of explaining the basics, and since this one does have an almost an entirely new set of characters, it's not a problem. One of my favorite books that I had to read in high school was Wild Swans which chronicles three generations of Chinese women, and also deals with the repercussions of Mao's Five Year Plan, the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution. I highly recommend that one for any interested in this topic.