Released January 12, 2016
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Viking)
The Expatriates hit a couple of my “what makes a book work for me” buttons: a good balance between plot and style, dark undertones, and social commentary.
A story about life as an American expat in Hong Kong told through the eyes of three women: Margaret (a married mother of three recovering from a tragedy), Mercy (a twenty-something Korean American Columbia grad trying to get her life on track), and Hilary (a housewife struggling with fertility).
Why I Read It
I was looking for a relatively light read since life has been chaotic lately and I remembered Catherine at Gilmore Guide to Books’ review of this novel.
Maintaining your identity through motherhood, expat life, Hong Kong culture, appearance vs. reality, getting beneath the surface of people
What I Liked
- When I picked up The Expatriates, I was expecting a light novel about wealthy, successful expats living it up in Hong Kong and I was delighted to find the story also had surprising depth. Yes, many of the characters’ lives sparkle on the surface, but darkness lurks just underneath as it becomes apparent that reality is quite different from appearances.
- While I can’t say if Lee’s social commentary on Hong Kong culture and expat life is spot-on (having never been to Hong Kong and never been an expat), it was one of my favorite parts of the novel and truly made the setting and context come alive.
This is the Hong Kong curse that expat housewives talk about in hushed voices: the man who takes to Hong Kong the wrong way. He moves from egalitarian society, where he’s supposed to take out the trash every day and help with the dinner dishes, to a place where women cater to his every desire – a secretary who anticipates his needs before he does, a servant in the house who brings him his espresso just the way he likes it and irons his boxers and socks – and the local population is not as sassy with the comebacks as where he came from, so, of course, he then looks for that in every corner of his life.
- I love when a book contains a mystery or crime, but it’s more of a catalyst to explore relationships and emotions than the center of the story. And, that dynamic gave The Expatriates the kind of balance between style and plot that makes books work for me.
- The level of entitlement among the expat community and wealthy Hong Kong residents was disgusting at times (i.e. a maid holds up an ipad while a child plays on it in a restaurant). But, it was a train wreck I couldn’t stop reading about!
- I find that stories about rich people can either completely hit the mark or be incredibly boring…and a key to success is having an observant outsider (i.e. Nick Carraway) to marvel on the wealthy’s social quirks and deliver biting commentary. Mercy played this role in The Expatriates. Though she graduated from Columbia and moved in wealthy circles there, she had a less privileged childhood as a Korean immigrant in Queens. And, she was scrapping by to make ends meet in Hong Kong. She interacted with the wealthy expats, but was not one of them.
What I Didn’t Like
- In addition to the Epilogue wrapping the story up a bit too neatly (a feeling I have about Epilogues in general), this one was unrealistic and overly sappy.
A Defining Quote
She looks around the table during a pause in the conversation with Mindy. Every woman there is well exercised, watches her diet, has two or three children, a husband. They all have shiny hair, and they are all wearing sheaths and daytime dresses perfect for the occasion. No one is breaking the rules of ladies’ luncheon. They radiate well-being and privilege, and yet she is among them, so who is to say what’s behind any woman’s smiling face.
Good for People Who Like…
Social commentary, marriage, dislikable characters, different cultures, motherhood, wealthy people behaving badly