Tuesday, February 23, 2016
The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee
Published by Viking January 2016
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Mercy, a young Korean American and recent Columbia graduate, is adrift, undone by a terrible incident in her recent past. Hilary, a wealthy housewife, is haunted by her struggle to have a child, something she believes could save her foundering marriage. Meanwhile, Margaret, once a happily married mother of three, questions her maternal identity in the wake of a shattering loss. As each woman struggles with her own demons, their lives collide in ways that have irreversible consequences for them all.
In June of 2009, I read Lee's The Piano Teacher. It was one of the first books I reviewed (as you can tell by my review!). I didn't do a favorite books list in 2009 so I don't know if it would have made a top ten list that year; but, six years later, when I was pitched this book, I still remembered being really impacted by that book. I was eager to see if Lee could have that kind of effect on me again.
I'm afraid I have mixed feelings about The Expatriates.
The expatriate community is, perhaps, the most important character in the book. Because of Hong Kong's unique history, its expat community and relationship with the people of the city is also unique. Each of the ladies finds themselves in a different place in the expat community which is much less homogenized that you might imagine yet remains limited to certain parts of the city. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the lives of these people who live in something of a state of limbo.
As a mother, I absolutely connected with Margaret's story, her pain, her inability to move on from the terrible thing that happened to her family. Hilary was tougher to connect with, to understand; she is a woman who seemed to want a child for all of the wrong reasons (although her situation is certainly not uncommon). I never could connect with Mercy, someone who seemed to have decided that she would never do anything right and seemed resigned not to bother to try. She may have been the character closest to Lee's heart, though; both are daughters born of Korean parents in a different country.
It took me a while to really be pulled in equally to each woman's story but when they all began to become intertwined, I definitely enjoyed the book more. Unfortunately, the ending struck me as both too neat and tidy (although I did appreciate that not all loose ends were tied up) and incredibly hard to buy into. Still, for a look into a world that is utterly unique and for Margaret's story alone, The Expatriates was well worth reading.