The Leftover Woman by Jean Kwok
Published by William Morrow & Company
Publication date: October 10, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Contemporary, Cultural, Literary, Suspense
From the time she was a child Jasmine has known she was leftover. Born in a small village in China during the years of its restrictive One Child Policy she wouldn’t even be alive if her twin sibling hadn’t been a boy. Marriage could have been her way out, but instead, in Jean Kwok’s new novel, A Leftover Woman, her husband makes it clear that her only value is in providing him with a son. Years later, on the other side of the world, another woman living in luxury in Manhattan unknowingly holds the key to Jasmine’s happiness, even as her own life starts crumbling around her.
A burden to her parents, Jasmine’s worth only became apparent when she started to mature. Even then, they believed it to be fleeting and so married her off to a government official when she was only 14. There was love in the beginning, but after their first child is a girl who dies at birth her husband loses interest in her and spends more time in Beijing with other women. In her loneliness she snoops on his computer and discovers her daughter didn’t die, but was given away by her husband to a wealthy American couple. When A Leftover Woman opens Jasmine is in New York City, desperate to find her daughter and to pay back the smugglers who got her into the country.
Rebecca lives in a world beyond Jasmine’s imagining. The beloved daughter of a well-known publisher, she’s now one of the top editors at the company her father founded. She’s happily married and after years of struggling to have a baby, they have Fiona, the beautiful daughter they adopted as an infant from China. But a crucial misstep has threatened her career, putting her under intense pressure and scrutiny, so she’s had to leave more of the parenting to her husband and their new nanny, Lucy.
As The Leftover Woman progresses the plot twists and coincidences pile up in a way that detracted from the crux of the story. I’m noticing a need in many authors lately to layer on ever more ‘surprises’ in their plots and for some it’s necessary because their writing doesn’t hold up. There has to be more action or the story stalls. This isn’t true with Kwok (and never has been) so I’m more sensitive to it than I would be from another writer.
Kwok doesn’t need more in her novels. Her ability to portray the emotions and motivations that lie at the heart of her characters is more than enough. In this case, it’s the two sides of the coin that is being a woman in the modern world. She parses the differences in the two women without negating either of their experiences. Yes, physically Jasmine is at much greater physical risk than Rebecca, but Rebecca is so tied to her persona and learned behavior as to how she should act that it inhibits her ability to live fully. Both have much to lose in their own way, and this, the push and pull from so many forces, not the big reveals, is what makes The Leftover Woman compelling reading.
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