Book Review: The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

expats

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Favourite quotes:

“Human beings have figured out that to celebrate and feel happy, you need certain elements—people, music, alcohol—and that’s all it takes to create this feeling of celebration and acknowledgment of life and time passing. The rituals we make—the elaborate wedding, the twenty-first birthday—these all signal to the world outside the changes in one’s life.”

“This is what could kill you about children as you watched them: the way they slept, their open-mouthed unconscious faces, their frail collarbones, their defiant stance right before they cried, their innocence. Their crazy, heartbreaking innocence. It could really kill you, if you thought about it.”

“Can you suddenly be summoned into adulthood? Is it the same as being promoted and suddenly having to pretend you know how to be a boss, or getting your period or having sex and suddenly being on the other side, knowing what it’s all about?”

 

I was an international student in high school, university and grad school, and I was an expat in between and some time after these respective periods. So of course I was interested in reading fiction about people who have experienced similar things, especially a book with a diverse cast like “The Expatriates”. The novel is told from points of view of three women whose lives are intervowen in expats’ favourite city – Hong Kong – in a way that makes us believe that even the biggest cities can be so overwhelmingly small.

Margaret Reade is a freelance landscape desigher who followed her husband to Hong Kong and took their three children with them. Mercy Cho is a Korean American Ivy League graduate whose bad fortune leaves her with a string of one bad decision after another. Hilary Starr followed her lawyer husband to Hong Kong and is desperate for a child but has trouble connecting with kids, particularly one kid. A tragedy leaves Margaret despondent and numb and family devastated, and makes Mercy embark on even more self-destructive ventures. Meanwhile, Hilary’s laissers-faire attitude towards adopting a mixed-race child opens her to societal scrutiny, and her husband’s actions aren’t helping. The city of Hong Kong isn’t home to these women, but their position in that world is fragile and there are unspoken societal rules to be followed. After all, nobody wants to be alone in a foreign city where you don’t speak the language and need a source of income or to be a rock for your family. American expats in Hong Kong might have their own odd little community, but each member of that community has a different story and their own secrets and crosses to bear.

 

The three protagonists of “The Expatriates” are not likable in a traditional sense – they are flawed and real, which makes them very compelling. The book does have great descriptions which paint a clear picture of the Hong Kong expat society in a reader’s head, but the primary reason I was able to feel for Margaret, Mercy and Hilary, despite all their faults, is that the writing truly shows us a picture of who they are. I do mean shows, not tells – the author clearly knows the importance of that rule. That rule is broken when the author tells us what the characters are thinking and feeling, but that is done in a very believable way. Mercy, Margaret and Hilary aren’t perfect and the author doesn’t in any way try to present them as such. Perfect people don’t exist, and I don’t like seeing them in fiction either. Marriages aren’t perfect either, which is made very clear in this book – “Marriages are mysteries to everyone, most of all to the people in them, if they are not paying attention“. I’ve never been married and I’m not particularly keen on being married, but I know that the struggles every couple, every family experiences when their surrounding environment changes completely are very real. “The Expatriates” doesn’t gloss over these issues and problems – in fact, the author makes it quite a significant subplot, details of which I can’t divulge without spoiling anything.

It can be argued that while the novel is character-centric, the setting – modern-day Hong Kong – is no less significant. I love books where a setting could very well be a character in itself, and Hong Kong is such a complex, multi-layered city that it could very well be the fourth main character. I’ve never been unfortunately (not yet), and I was very pleased to see that the author doesn’t just describe the “glamorous” parts of the town tourists hear so much about and that are advertised as “expat heaven”. Cultural differences, sexism, racism and classism were never once glossed over, although we see them through the eyes of three privileged Americans. Indeed, class differences are a big subject in the novel, and the contrast between American expat community and their “help”, as well as the rest of the population is starking. I was an expat – not an American one but an expat nonetheless – and chances are that I might very well be one again someday – and I did see quite a few familiar behaviours in the book. Unfortunately, the lack of interest in the local culture, customs and language that’s demonstrated in the book was quite common amongst my expat contemporaries. When I’m in another city or country, even for a short time, I genuinely enjoy getting to know the local culture, the people and I truly believe that the best way to learn a language is to integrate yourself into the society. It baffled me how unwilling the people in “The Expatriates” were to learn Cantonese. Granted, languages are difficult and not everybody is a linguist, but still.

The city’s vivid atmosphere and the characters are what truly made “The Expatriates” an enjoyable and compelling novel, worth thinking about afterwards. My rating is 7.5/10.

 

Recommendations

You might enjoy “The Expatriates” if you liked:

“Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“This Must Be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell

 

Have you read “The Expatriates”? Do you have any favourite books about lives of expats? Leave me a comment! 🙂

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