#TheExpatriates #JaniceYKLee #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.
Atmospheric, moving, and utterly compelling Lee explores with devastating poignancy the emotions, identities, and relationships of three very different American women living in the same small expat community in Hong Kong.
The Expatriates was published by Little Brown in 2016.
I received my copy of The Expatriates as part of my gift subscription from EloiseBooks. You can find out more about Eloise by reading my blogpost about her here.
This is a very good read. It's one of those books which is a very easy, enjoyable read yet explores issues and themes that touch on something deeper and provokes an emotional response from the reader. This is a book which explores what it means to be a woman, a wife, a lover and a mother.
The novel is told from three different perspectives. We follow Mercy, Margaret and Hilary as they adapt, adjust and acclimatise to life in the expat community. Lee creates a kind of microcosm with this quite separate and isolated community and her presentation of the people and their attitudes and actions is fascinating. As well as being a compelling insight into an ex-pat community, Lee's observations are also very relatable as Lee explores themes which are probably prevalent and universal within many groups of people.
I really enjoyed the comments about the relationships between the expats. In a community which is always changing because of its transient nature, relationships are formed on "tenuous links" or "a few electronic exchanges". Therefore the characters always feel under scrutiny, forever being "sized up" and aware of the "signifiers" they reveal and how important this will be in the formation of the "rite of tribe forming". As one of the characters observes, "everyone here is temporary" and Lee's exploration of the ramifications of this emotionally as well as physically are really interesting and intriguing.
And the problem with a friendship based on such a "loose" or "tenuous" links, or purely circumstantial, means it can be fragile and easily tested. Or it can eventually create a bond that is unshakable. Being so far away from one's extended family and "home" means that actually, "everyone here is in the same boat, so the women become one another's family".
Mercy, the youngest of the three women that the novel follows, is a very tragic figure with a terrible self esteem issue. Mercy only expects to "screw things up". She is single, she is lonely, she wonders whether she is a good person and she punishes herself mentally. She tells herself the story of "girl meets boy, boy likes girl, boy pulls girl out of her awful life" desperate for the same to happen to her but simultaneously acknowledging this is merely a thing of fairy tales and those can never be believed in. She's on the periphery of the expat community as she does not have children and her observations of this are shrewd and candid:
"...this is what parents did. They told you stories about children and were outraged or delighted by some odd detail and were perplexed if you were not appropriately outraged or delighted as well. ..."
Mercy is Korean and this adds another dimension and further insight into the novel. I enjoyed Lee's wry comments via Mercy's musing such as she "has watched enough Korean dramas to know that Koreans are used to tragedy and melodrama.....it's a distinctly Korean way of being, and so she fits right in." Mercy's sense of inevitable sadness and failure could appear to be overwhelming and depressing but actually Lee manages it in such a way that it never becomes depressing. This is aided by the fact that we alternate between three voices and also that the plot quickly forces the women into new situations which in turn force Mercy to change and confront her disbelief in herself.
Margaret can be pragmatic, kind, sympathetic and also more dismissive of some of the mothers she encounters. But when her son goes missing, her world collapses and her grief is so palpable and so painful it soars off the page. Margaret can never recover, never move on and as the months wear on she becomes more and more crippled by her heartache. Although this is a harrowing and devastating plot line, again Lee is able to control and manage the chapters from Margaret's point of view in such a way that it is not too traumatic for the reader. It is reflective and the reader has plenty of empathy for Margaret but it is as much about her character and how she operates within this community as the ongoing search for her child. Keeping the narratives in third person probably also helps keep the reader at a slight distance too.
Our third character is Hilary and I think she was my favourite. Hilary is married but childless and desperate to become a mother. Her marriage collapses and her response is bitter and resentful.
"When does she get to have her own midlife crisis?"
Hilary's chapters are also full of emotion, full of a desire to fill the gap she believes a child will fill in her life. Her kindness, big heart and desperation are once again conveyed so beautifully and so authentically that Lee really proves her skill at expressing women's emotions and feelings with so much conviction and honesty.
I really enjoyed the point where all three lives began to converge and the threads of the story line began to knit together. I was totally absorbed by each of the women's lives and totally compelled to read on. I found Lee's prose engaging and the perfect balance of plot and character, emotion and action. There were many lines that resonated with me, many messages contained within the pages and many quite profound observations that lay subtly between the words which gives the book a greater depth. I would recommend this book if you were looking for a great story and an easy read. I would also recommend this book if you were looking for a more thought provoking book that raises interesting questions about friendships, closed communities and motherhood. It would make a perfect book group read.
All the women change drastically throughout the story, each of them undergoes a huge journey. Their journeys are different yet interlinked, individual yet similar. What they have to confront is profound and poignant, heartbreaking yet heartwarming. This is a story about women and what women mean to each other. It is a story about mothers and motherhood. It is about the different guises motherhood can take, the heartache of a journey to becoming a mother, what happens to you on that journey and how you are transformed once you become a mother. It doesn't matter how you got there, what happened along the way, the mistakes you make as a mother or however you have interpreted your role as a parent. The Expatriates is about this bond - one that cannot be fully realised or explained but is overwhelming, powerful and life changing.
If you would like a copy of my Book Club Questions for The Expatriates please leave a comment or message me on Twitter.
JANICE Y K LEE
Janice Lee was born in Hong Kong to Korean parents and lived there until she was fifteen, attending the international school. She then left for boarding school in New Hampshire, where she learned the true meaning of winter.
From there, she moved south to Cambridge, MA, where she spent four years at Harvard, developing a taste for excellent coffee, Au Bon Pain pastries, and staying up all night, sometimes indulging in all three at the same time. She also pleased her parents by meeting, on the very first day of school, the man who would become her husband.
After graduating with a degree in English and American Literature and Language, she relocated down to New York where she got her first post-college job fetching coffee as an assistant to the beauty editor at Elle magazine. After a few months booking massages learning about the cosmetics industry, she heard about a job in the features section and was able to switch departments and return to her true roots, being happily inundated with books on a daily basis.
She then moved to Mirabella magazine where she did more of the same. As much as she enjoyed her job, she eventually came to realize that if she stayed on this career track, she would have no time to write her own book, something that had been a goal of hers since elementary school. Taking a deep breath, she quit to freelance, think about writing, and eventually ended up at the Hunter College MFA Program, which at the time was headed up by the wonderful Chang-Rae Lee. She spent most of her time in grad school writing short stories, some of which got published, but most of which are still languishing in various states of completion on her computer.
She was about to graduate with no definite plans when she received a letter from Yaddo, the artists’ colony, saying that her application for a summer residency had been approved. She also found out she was pregnant with her first child.
At Yaddo, she started to organize her thoughts into what would become THE PIANO TEACHER. After she had her first child, she put away the book for a year, adjusting to her new life as a mother. Then she had another child and picked it up again. Then she moved to Hong Kong. When she found out she was pregnant with her third and fourth (twins!) she had all the incentive she needed to finish the book, seeing as how she might not have any time to do anything ever again. Five years after she started it, she had a good first draft and sold THE PIANO TEACHER two months before she gave birth to the twins. When she told her mother she had sold her first novel, her mother asked whether Janice's husband had been the buyer. Really.
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