Wednesday, January 13, 2016

book review: The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

The basics: The Expatriates is the story of the large American expatriate community in Hong Kong, and it's centered around three different women: Mercy, a young Korean-American and recent Columbia graduate adrift in Hong Kong; Hilary, a wealthy housewife struggling to have a baby; and Margaret, a happily married mother of three.

My thoughts: Longtime readers of this blog know how much I love to travel vicariously through reading, so I was excited to explore Hong Kong's expatriate community in The Expatriates. The novel certainly delivers on armchair travel, but the reading experience was much deeper and richer than that. It offers so much more than an escapist read set in an exotic world of wealth. The three female narrators are both the heart and backbone of this novel. Each woman is unique, fully realized, and wholly human. I found sympathy with each, but I also found reality in their faults.

Although a smaller part of the novel, I found myself enchanted with Lee's depictions of pregnancy, childbirth and the transition into motherhood:
"This was the hardest thing she had ever done, and arguably the most important. And no one was acknowledging that it really, really sucked. A lot. This metamorphosis into that other being, that mother, was excruciating. She noticed that it got better in quarters. Three months, six months, nine months. And then suddenly she woke up and she felt better. She was not back to normal--that baseline had shifted. But she could cope with her life...And then the others came, and they were different and easier, because she had already crossed over into that other country of motherhood. She thinks about that a lot, how you get used to everything, that the first shift is difficult and horrible, and you live your life because what else can you do, and then one day you wake up and your life seems normal. You start to forget the bad times. You shift into your new self."
In terms of narrative, this passage is almost an aside. It doesn't propel the story along, but it made me understand Margaret better and differently. So, too, this passage added depth to my understanding of Hilary:
"She had taken a class in college about feminism and medicine. In it, she learned that the whole terminology around menstruation--a failure to conceive, a shedding of the lining--was negative and misogynistic and old-fashioned, teaching women that that their sole purpose in life was to have children. The lining of the uterus was not shed; it was cleansing itself to make way for a new lining. Back then, so far away from the idea of having children, the whole premise had seemed impossibly academic and precious. Now she wants to find that book again and read it. She wants to find a way to redefine what is happening to her, to own it." 
As I read The Expatriates and spent time visiting the lives and inner thoughts of these three women, I was so moved. There are bad and sad things that happen here, but those events don't shape this narrative; they aren't the emphasis. Instead, Lee keeps the focus on these three women, in their moments of strength, weakness, and the realities of life in between extremes.

Favorite passage: "Doesn't every city contain some version of yourself that you can finally imagine?

The verdict: I loved the time I spent with these three women and in their fascinating part of Hong Kong. Lee's prose and characters are beautifully formed, and both give this novel a stunning depth. I, for one, hope Lee doesn't take nearly as long to write her next book, although if it's this good, I can't be too mad.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: January 12, 2016
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Expatriates from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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  1. I read about this book yesterday on another blog and it sounds really appealing. I used to read a lot of books set in Hong Kong and China. Think I will like this one!

  2. I read an interview with Janice YK Lee, about how she is local but not local (ie born in HK but not local because she's Korean). And that struck a chord with me as I'm from Singapore but my children are American citizens as they were born here in the US. They call themselves (or at least my 4yearold does) Singapore Americans. We've been toying with the idea of moving back to Asia, so I'm wondering whether these Singapore Americans of mine will be able to adapt and live in Singapore.

    All this is a long way of saying that while I did like (but not love) Lee's previous book, I am completely intrigued by this new one of hers.

  3. I have another book of hers on my shelves that I've been meaning to get to. I'm glad to see that she's such a great writer! Now I want to add this to my list too. :)

  4. Have seen this on lots of "Most Anticipated" lists. Would enjoy the chance to read it!

  5. I'm beginning to see this one pop up here and there, and it sounds amazing! Great premise that really grabs me. Great review, Carrie!

  6. I'm really excited about this one! I read and loved The Piano Teacher several years ago and have been hoping Lee would publish a follow-up for a while. I'm also in the process of trying to convince my book club to make it our February selection. I'll be showing them your review to help convince them :) Thanks for sharing!


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