Published by Viking
Publication date: January 12th 2016
Genres: Cultural, Fiction
The Expatriates is Janice Y. K. Lee’s new novel about three American women living in Hong Kong: Margaret, a married mother of small children; Hilary, a corporate wife who longs for a baby, and Mercy, a recent college graduate. While each embodies a different phase of life they are on equal footing, living in a city where they don’t belong and where they are unlikely to stay permanently. They move in different social spheres and yet, through Lee we see how truly small this metropolis can be. From having no place in each other’s lives, these women ultimately find themselves bound together in ways they never anticipated.
Within The Expatriates Mercy is the placeholder for her generation—the twenty-four-year-old Columbia-educated daughter of a Korean dry cleaner. She goes to Hong Kong not only to escape this background, but also because she can’t really figure out what she wants to do and knows only that her wildly wealthy friends at Columbia have given her a taste for a life she can’t afford because she has neither the family connections, the brains, or the ambition to achieve it. Her experiences in Hong Kong are aimless, stumbling from one temp job to another, so when she meets Margaret she agrees to act as a babysitter to her three young children on a family trip to Korea, leading to disastrous consequences. In the aftermath of what happens Mercy isolates herself, spending her time shut in her tiny apartment and
…dreaming of a higher authority—one that sees all the injustices meted out to her, that sees all the good things she tries to do, no matter if they don’t work out or no one notices—and that she will be found to be correct: Everyone will see that she has suffered more, been given less.
For Margaret there is no hiding. She has to continue with her life as a landscape architect, wife and mother, despite the unfathomable trauma and knowing that everyone around her knows her situation. Even Hilary, a wealthy childhood friend, whose own maternal instincts have not been fulfilled, despite years of trying. With this much action swirling around them it is Lee’s voyage into their private lies that is fascinating. On the surface, Margaret moves through her days without anyone knowing that she has a second life in a dingy rented room where solitude is all that keeps her sane. Hilary’s desire has manifested itself into an odd, stilted ‘trial’ relationship with a little boy from a local orphanage while Mercy, when she does finally venture out, encounters an older married man and begins an affair.
To her credit, Lee doesn’t shrink from the aspects of each woman that are unpalatable. Mercy, in particular, is difficult because her worldview is that she has no control over her life and everything that happens to her is bad luck for which she is not responsible. Lee is clever about shaping a character whose self-absorption is complete, going so far as to use Mercy to subtly maneuver the plot of The Expatriates. She is a sharp object hurtling through the space around her with the potential to inflict damage on anyone she comes in contact with. Without even the self-awareness to have a planned trajectory, her actions are even more dangerous. That her impact explodes all of their lives may not be surprising, but thanks to Lee’s writing, the nuances that permeate The Expatriates are.