Published by Penguin, Random House, Viking on 1/12/15
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Women's Fiction
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From the author of the New York Times bestseller The Piano Teacher, a beautiful, transporting novel about motherhood, marriage, and friendship
Janice Y. K. Lee’s blockbuster hit debut novel The Piano Teacher was called “immensely satisfying” by People, “intensely readable” by O, The Oprah Magazine, and “a rare and exquisite story” by Elizabeth Gilbert. And now, in her long-awaited follow-up, 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.
Mercy is adrift. A recent Columbia graduate without a safety net, she can’t hold down a job—or a man. Hilary, a wealthy housewife, is haunted by her inability to conceive a child she believes could save her floundering marriage. Meanwhile, Margaret, ostensibly 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 crash into one another in ways that could have devastating consequences for them all. Moving, atmospheric, and utterly compelling, The Expatriates confirms Lee as an exceptional talent and one of our keenest observers of women’s inner lives.
Oh my word, these women. I’ve just closed the last page of The Expatriates and I can’t help but feel that I’ve experienced something immensely powerful. This book is so beautifully poignant and emotionally reeling that I know I’ll have difficulty forgetting it.
The Expatriates follows three American women, Margaret, Mercy, and Hilary, who live in an insulated and exclusive social sphere in Hong Kong. I’ll give a bit more background on each woman, since I’m not a regular reader of fiction, women’s fiction, literary fiction, whatever you classify it as, and my review is for other readers like myself.
Margaret is a rich housewife whose life revolves around her kids, her husband, and a small number of friends (mainly other expat Americans such as herself). When we’re introduced to her, she’s a perfect shell of a woman, recovering from something painful, something big, but we don’t find out exactly what it is right away.
Mercy and Margaret are connected. Whatever caused Margaret to close in on herself has made Mercy crumble almost completely. Mercy is the one I connected with most. She’s smart, and unlucky, reckless, but honest, and I had an almost visceral reaction to her. She made me feel the most. Her first scene gutted me and it’s the reason I kept reading.
Hilary, like Margaret, is a rich housewife, but her life doesn’t really revolve around anything. She’s stagnant as she and her husband struggle to have a family, him growing more distant, and her not minding the isolation, or at least, the isolation from him.
These three women who are on such different paths and dealing with different obstacles all share a similar loneliness and hopelessness that makes them sisters. They also share the same hope. Throughout approximately half of the book, Lee’s emotive prose left me feeling pretty melancholy, sometimes even depressed, which made reading a slow endeavor for me, because I needed breaks to digest everything. But during those breaks, Margaret, Mercy, and Hilary were always on my mind.
They frustrated me with their sadness. They angered me with their privilege and willing blindness. They shocked me with their recklessness. They also inspired me with their strength and resilience.
The Expatriates takes place in a world very different from my own. I don’t know many women like these, but I am very familiar with the social structure that’s described and I’m in awe of Lee’s honesty. There were times when I had difficulty sympathizing with anyone other than Mercy, because of my own prejudices that I brought to the story. I know the post grad who’s struggling to find her place and her worth in the world, as she watches others who were dealt a better hand have an easier time of things. Hell, I am that postgrad. I know the rich, white, women who pay poor, colored, women to run their houses and watch their kids. My mother and aunts are those women. The poor colored ones. So, yes, although The Expatriates is revelatory, it isn’t exactly eye opening. At least, some aspects of it weren’t eye opening.
What The Expatriates did reveal was the truth beneath the mask. Everyone is so focused on their own grief, their own struggles, their own dreams, that we don’t see what the people around us are grieving, struggling with, or dreaming about. Better isn’t always better. Margaret, Mercy, and Hilary reinforce that. Lee’s women are honest, diverse, and multifaceted, and I loved that. They were very real to me, and sometimes I felt that they were in the room with me, sitting right next to me.
This novel isn’t what I usually read, and I struggled with the pace sometimes, but I predict that at the end of the year it’ll be one of the few that I remember vividly. Have you ever read a book and had flashbulb memories of certain scenes, in bright color and with strong emotions? I do sometimes, and I think this is that kind of book. It’s in my head. If you’re not a typical literary fiction reader, like myself, but are willing to try something new, I recommend you read this for the characters and message. Both are beautiful.