I recently moved and I finally found the time to get to the local library branch to get a card. I came home and got on the library’s website, blacked out, and then three days later I had 6 books waiting for me on hold. I couldn’t have been happier.
It was easy deciding which one to read first, because The Expatriates was only a 14 day loan, whereas the other 5 were 21 day loans. So I dove into Janice Y. K. Lee’s second novel right away, and it only took me a week to get through. I had never read The Piano Teacher, so this was my first exposure to Lee’s writing. Her focus on women, family, and struggle was well done, however I feel as though she only skimmed the surface of how deep this novel truly could have been.
The book focused on three women: Mercy, Margaret, and Hilary. All transplants to Hong Kong from the states, they make their way through the expatriate society that exists and thrives there. They are linked in several ways, mostly tragic, but each finds their own way independently and then back to each other.
A woman reading this book could find herself in any of the characters. Mercy, a young woman trying to make her way despite a past that says she is bound to be unlucky. Struggling to find and keep a job, earning the approval of those around her, she has not yet found a true sense of self. Margaret, a married mother of 3, experiences a loss so great that it rocks her entire world and forces her to learn to rebuild, reforge, and eventually forgive. The only character I felt less connected to was Hilary. She was introduced late in the book and I just couldn’t seem to care about her, her marriage, or her childless plight, but I’m sure there are women out there that would identify with that struggle.
The plot is interesting and I love the writing style which takes us in third person form from character to character in separate chapters. You can feel the eventuality of them converging, and they are slowly brought together and into focus as the book goes on. You see it coming, and it makes sense when it does. What also makes this book interesting to my Western, white, poor sensibilities is that it is set in a place I have never been, in the midst of a level of privilege I have never experienced. I had to stretch my imagination to reach what it might feel like to have nothing to do as a wife or as a mother. What would I do with my time if I didn’t have to do chores, cook, shop, or even drive myself places?
Despite the setting being interesting and the story being good, this book was lacking in emotion. Margaret experiences a level of loss that should shake a family to the core. Mercy feels lost in her life and is also drowning in guilt. Hilary feels empty and insufficient and longing. As a reader, I felt none of it. This book needed a much higher level of vicariousness to be memorable. I was able to see myself in these characters, but I believe that an author of this kind of story should draw a reader in to the point where the reader feels these experiences for him or herself. I wanted to sympathize with each woman while rooting against and for them at alternating times. There are places in this book where I should have been crying while I was reading. This book was good, but it was too emotionally shallow.
So I recommend The Expatriates to expand your mind, to bring to your attention the ways that Americans affect other places in the world just by being there, and to learn about the struggles of families that must exist away from home. It is a beautifully written novel, but it will not tug at your heartstrings very hard.