The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee, review by Bruce Jacobs
Janice Y.K. Lee's first novel, The Piano Teacher (2009), was a critically recognized and popular historical romance, set during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the 1940s. Her second, The Expatriates, also takes place in Hong Kong, but in the 2010s (even referencing the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370)--a time that might be considered the American occupation of Hong Kong, when global U.S. companies post their future hotshots (almost exclusively men) to temporary assignments in this regional financial and trading hub. Expatriate professionals drag their families along and cluster together in tony Repulse Bay high-rises. Their immigrant Filipina or Thai or Korean help--cooks, nannies and drivers--afford the wives the luxuries of pampering the kids, having wine spritzer lunches at the American Club, and flitting off to Phuket beaches or to shop in mainland Shenzhen. In this fishbowl community, Lee focuses on three expat women who share citizenship and language but struggle individually with their secrets and insecurities.
Hilary comes to Hong Kong with her inherited California money and busy international lawyer husband, David. With her wealth, powerful spouse, attractive friends and servants, she has everything--except the child she desperately wants but can't conceive. Surrounded by other women in a "veritable frenzy of fertility, pregnancies, baby showers, births," she resorts to overseeing music lessons for a mixed-race teen orphan boy in what gossiping friends call an "adoption test drive."
Bringing her three young children for the global exposure, Margaret leaves her landscape architecture position in San Francisco to follow her multinational business executive husband, Clarke, who will "oversee Asia Pacific, ex-Japan... [and receive] a housing package, a car and driver, live-in maid, school fees... a country club membership." Because of Clarke's constant travel, Margaret is lonely and conflicted about raising children in such an insular world, until an unimaginable family loss occurs on a vacation in Seoul and brings her to her knees.
Mercy is the odd woman out--an expat living on the wrong side of Victoria Peak. Although a Columbia University graduate, she is a second-generation Korean American immigrant of the "Queens Koreans... struggling families, dry cleaners and deli owners and ministers." Graduating jobless among the rich whose family connections secure them lucrative positions, she retreats home to Queens, doing temp work and dating the wrong guys until she impulsively heads to Hong Kong to start over.
The story of these three women is told in chapters simply titled with their first names (surnames are only tags attached by husbands and fathers). Their lives intersect in Hong Kong's surprisingly small-scale island metropolis. They share similar but idiosyncratic concerns about motherhood, lovers, money and self-fulfillment. The men in Lee's expat Hong Kong are aloof breadwinners at best, cruel and indifferent cads at worst. At its core, The Expatriates is a novel about modern women--unflinching but empathetic in its observation of weakness and triumphant in its portrayal of quiet strength.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.