In some ways, The Expatriates could be set anywhere. The three principle women who the story revolves around are only tangentially connected by the circumstance of their being part of the small circle of expatriates living in Hong Kong. Each woman is consumed by her own challenges and agendas. Their stories overlap and tangle up, but are never really one. They remain separate stories that seem to accidentally bump into one another and knock one another off track.
Everywhere I go I wonder what it would be like to live in that place. But when I talk to expatriates or friends just returned from an extended stay overseas, there is a disconnect for a while that makes it hard to talk about. On one hand, expatriate life is not all that different from… well… life. Life, with all it’s problems, stresses, obligations, and relationships, is universal. What changes is the stage life plays out on and that, in turn, changes the players.
For one thing, many times the company perks and relocation packages allow ordinary people to hire household help, throw lavish parties, take exotic vacations, and experience an exaggerated version of American prosperity that they could never afford in America. Where a woman might be just one of the chorus girls on an American stage, she becomes a Diva in the Hong Kong theatre of life.
The Expatriates follows two such divas of life and one understudy. Mercy, tired of being an “unlucky” child tries to reinvent herself in Hong Kong, far away from her perpetually worried mother. Margaret stagers through the motions of holding herself and her family together after the loss of one of her children. Hilary considers adoption even as her marriage deteriorates. These three women, preoccupied with balancing what they want with what they think they should have, never really open up to one another. As Lee puts it, “Everyone is stuck in their lives, thinking about what people are thinking about them, when actually nobody is thinking about them. Only you are thinking about yourself usually… you or your mother.” ~Janice Y. K. Lee The Expatriates
Even at the end, when they finally do connect, the thing that unites them is their mutual isolation.
“The women sit quietly in the sunlit room, each thinking her own impossibly complicated thoughts.” ~Janice Y. K. Lee The Expatriates
What wander-readers will love:
The Expatriates is an introverted traveler’s ballad. One of the things I enjoy most about travel is the alone-ness of it. Even as I meet new people and have new adventures, I get to stay in my own head to do it most of the time. This book gets that. I felt a real kinship with these women living the duality of engagement with the real wide world to a degree most Americans never experience; while at the same time being isolated in it. It’s a feeling you can only get as a foreigner, outsider, or other. It’s hard to capture but Lee does it and makes it lovely.
Not so much:
If you are reading to learn about life in Hong Kong, I’m not sure The Expatriates will deliver what you are looking for. It’s not about expatriate life in Hong Kong, it’s about the lives of three individual expatriates in Hong Kong. It could have just as easily been set in Japan or Viet Nam.
This book moved me. The Expatriates is what the movie Steel Magnolias would be if it were crossed with the movie Crash and had been written by Barbara Kingsolver. Though I finished it days ago, I still feel attached to the characters. I saw a little of myself in each of the three women. While they could not relate to one another, I related to them all.
Have you read The Expatriates? What did you think? How did it compare to Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher?
Read ~ Write ~ Wander