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

The ExpatriatesThe Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee

Rating: ★★★☆☆ (2.5 stars)

This review contains minor spoilers

I have always been drawn to fiction about the inner lives of women, so this novel drew me in from the synopsis. The Expatriates is about three women who have uprooted their lives in America in order to live in Hong Kong, although they have different reasons for doing so. Mercy is a young Korean American graduate from Columbia, disillusioned because she is unable to hold down a regular job despite her prestigious degree. Margaret and her husband have moved to Hong Kong because of his company, and all is well until one of her children go missing during a vacation to Korea. Hilary similarly follows her husband to Hong Kong, but their marriage isn’t going well, either—she’s wearily resigned to her childlessness, and she has lost the will to take action in her life, something that characterised her before she came to Hong Kong.

It didn’t take me long to settle into the story. From the first few sentences of Mercy’s point of view, Lee captures the sense of alienation of being a temporary resident in a foreign country, and the feeling of being adrift in one’s own life:

A slow-roasted unicorn. A baked, butterflied baby dragon, spread-eagled, spine a delicate slope in the pan. A phoenix, perhaps, slightly charred from its fiery rebirth, sprinkled with sugar, flesh caramelized from the heat. That’s what she wants to eat: a mythical creature, something slightly otherwordly, something not real.

The author’s choice of the third person limited point of view heightens what we perceive as Mercy’s—and the two other women’s—hyper-awareness of everything around them; it also allows her to describe the women’s emotional landscapes with the same detachment as she does the Hong Kong landscape and culture that the women have never been able to fully immerse themselves in. In my opinion, the detachment afforded by the point of view grants the readers a clearer sense of the women’s emotions, and prevents the dangerously easy slide into sentimentality.

Here’s an example of this, again from Mercy’s point of view, while she scours “dependably sentimental human interest stor[ies]” about the lives of victims after a tragedy:

But Mercy wants to know what is never there. The person responsible for the calamity is never mentioned. No one wants to hear about the guy who shot the gun by mistake, or the drunk boyfriend driver, or the chimpanzee’s owner. The victims are richly sympathized with, and their guilty, confused perpetrators are erased from the story. They don’t exist. They are supposed to disappear.

What did all those people do?

What are their stories?

She knows her own. She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online, and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she’s allowed.

As it turns out, this is something common to all three women. They’re all plagued by a sense of lostness following a loss. The women all feel that their lives in Hong Kong are temporary, so they never quite become immersed into Hong Kong culture; as Margaret observes, one seems to stick all the more to one’s own cultures after vigorous small talk and friendliness. While Margaret, in particular, is aware of her status as a white foreigner, and how this in turn affects the way the locals treat her and how she treats the locals, she does nothing to change it, even as she feels shame for knowing it. The stasis, I think, is a product of the feeling of temporariness.

But, as the novel went on, it began to feel like this “adriftness” and “displacement” bled into the plot, not only the characterisation. All three women, all throughout the novel, remain passive spectators of their life. For example, for the first half of the novel, all that happens is that we are introduced to the ennui of their lives and the tragedy that beset Margaret and Mercy. This tragedy wasn’t even introduced with the same subtlety that was used in describing their lives so far; it was introduced in a very heavy-handed, overly sentimental manner, which, of course, made me less sympathetic already to the characters. This tragedy is that while on a trip to Korea, Margaret’s son, G, is gets lost on Mercy’s watch (Mercy was working as their babysitter), and G never turns up again. This is supposed to be the first conflict, I guess, this coming to terms with the loss of G. (Aside: What kind of name is G, anyway? He doesn’t even have a full name; it doesn’t stand for anything. Wondering if the author didn’t bother naming him because he won’t be around for most of the plot. Or is G supposed to mean ghost, like his ghost haunts the novel? Eh, no, now I’m just reading too much into it…)

Also, the three characters didn’t seem like three separate characters. They seem like the same character, but with different circumstances. We’re told that Hilary was an incredibly disciplined person, and that Margaret is pleasant and kind, but none of these characteristics seem to play out in any of their decisions or exchanges, or even in the way they think. The husbands and children are one-dimensional, more like props to the women’s experience. We aren’t “shown” who they are as much as we are “told” by this omniscient narrator. I wondered briefly whether the expatriate experience uniformly results in this erasure of one’s previous personality… but eh, I’m more convinced that it’s just vague characterisation at work.

When things finally do happen, they’re treated with more drama than is needed. Probably to make up for all that lack of drama during the first half of the novel. I won’t go into detail, but basically, the novel ends with—surprise, surprise—the women finally coming together. But I felt like their respective conflicts were not resolved in a satisfactory manner. For Margaret, for example, her grief from losing G was resolved through some platitudes from her therapist. Sadly, I’m not kidding. Hilary finally decides to adopt the child she was considering adopting, but the reason for her indecision wasn’t so clear to me, and the complexities of the whole adoption thing wasn’t elaborated on by the author. And then, Mercy gets knocked up, and suddenly her previously aimless life has meaning: Having this child was her purpose.

I don’t get it. Previously, these women weren’t even friends—in fact, Margaret and Mercy have an uneasy relationship, to say the least—but they suddenly become friends because they’re all mothers? Previously, these women felt alienated and adrift, but when they came to terms with motherhood—Hilary through adoption, Mercy through getting pregnant, and Margaret through accepting the loss of her son, in order to become a mother again to her other children—they suddenly felt like they’ve found their home? This is not to invalidate that motherhood is not redeeming, or it doesn’t provide meaning. It was just that I believed the conflict to be alienation, and with this ending, it seems like motherhood is presented as the answer alienation. It’s the answer to all three women’s feelings of meaninglessness. (Yeah, this was what I meant when I said they seemed like the same character, only with different circumstances.) Motherhood was presented as the one-size-fits-all solution to each woman’s emotional emptiness, and this didn’t make sense given the theme of the novel.

So overall, The Expatriates succeeds as a novel documenting the lives of Western expatriates in Asia, and exploring the nuances of expatriate life. But I think it side-stepped the questions it so bravely put forth in the book about alienation, adoption, grief, and friendship, and in the answer provided in the ending to “resolve” all these questions was ultimately unsatisfactory.

Read from February 23 – 27, 2018 | Goodreads Account

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