fiction / literary fiction

The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee


I’m not really sure how I feel about The Expatriates. I recently read The Copenhagen Affair which was also about expats (although the main character in that was an Indian-American woman living in Copenhagen and in The Expatriates the main characters are two white women and a Korean-American woman all living in Hong Kong) and I can’t help but compare the two. A lot of the minor details are similar; adjusting to life in a foreign city, new foods, the constant cycle of new expat arrivals, the American clubs they all seem to join, women adjusting after a major upheaval. I guess it makes sense that the experiences would be similar but it was striking how similar they were despite being in very different countries with very different cultures. But I digress!

In The Expatriates, we have Margaret,  a mother who’s child goes missing during a vacation to Korea, Mercy, the odd overly educated, underemployed woman who was supposed to be watching the child and Hilary who is wealthy, childless and who’s husband leaves her and takes up with Mercy. All are entangled but they don’t realize how much so until very near the end of the book. The storylines could have easily veered to the melodrama but good writing and somewhat slow pacing thanks to the alternating voices for each chapter kept things on an even keel.

My major issue with the book is that it really ends up being a book about motherhood rather than just women which, not being a mother nor having any interest in becoming one, wasn’t that compelling to me personally. A woman gets pregnant, one wants to adopt, one woman (literally) loses a child. Everything is framed through this lens which got to be a bit tiring for me. I liked the beginning half the best when one is just teased with what happens to each character and we get to know their stories vs. the latter half with was incredibly child focused. I felt like Margaret’s story was the most fleshed out, I think they could have left Hilary out as a narrator altogether and the book would have been fine, her story isn’t has connected as Mercy and Margaret’s and her storyline (wanting to adopt an older child, husband leaves her) wasn’t terribly compelling. Mercy was an odd one and I felt like her motivations were not fully explored.

The one character I was interested in the most, Olivia, who was Hilary’s Hong Kong-born college friend, was underutilized. I would have loved her to have been a fourth narrator to provide an outside perspective on these American women and their problems. All in all, the book was okay but not something I was rushing to finish.

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