The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee: Expat Life Has A Dark Side

May 5, 2016 Fiction 24

The Expatriates, Janice Y.K. LeeFiction
Released January 12, 2016
336 Pages
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.

Plot Summary

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.

Major Themes

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

Other Books You May Like

Contains a mystery or crime, which is not the center of the story:
Shelter by Jung Yun
Social commentary about the wealthy:
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

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24 Responses to “The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee: Expat Life Has A Dark Side”

  1. Tanya

    I’ve been keeping this book in the back of my mind for when i need a good, slightly lighter read. I’ve lived as an expat in several places, though not HK and i tend to abhor the lifestyle. Ok for a few months and then terribly dull. But i do think it will be good fun to read about.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Well, you might like this b/c she kind of skewers the whole lifestyle! It’s definitely darker than I expected, but it really hit the spot for me at a time when I needed a lighter read. So, I think it can still serve that purpose.

      And – I’d be interested to hear if you think her portrayal of the expat life is accurate!

  2. Kathy @ Kathy Reads Fiction

    I’m happy this one worked for you. I really enjoyed it, and it wasn’t at all what I expected from it. I wasn’t expecting a light reading, but I also didn’t expect the tragedy to be what it was nor the relationship between the three women to have such depth. Eventually, I might get around to writing a review (I’m really slacking in that area, lately).

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Yep- I agree. It all worked really well for me and it ended up being more than I expected!

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I’d be interested to hear your take on how she portrayed the expat life…given your experience! I just had to take her portrayal at face value.

  3. Naomi

    I have a friend who has lived in Hong Kong for the past 20 years now (wow – time flies!). I think I’ll recommend this to her. It would be interesting to hear whether or not she thinks the author has gotten it right (not that I have any reason to believe that she hasn’t).

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Yes – I’d love to hear her take!! I just recommended it to my friend who is currently an expat in Singapore. Not exactly the same, but I can’t wait to hear her take regardless!

  4. Leah @ Books Speak Volumes

    I picked up a copy of this at BEA last year but haven’t gotten around to reading it; it might be time to finally give it a shot! I’m glad to hear the social commentary was well done, but I might just skip the epilogue.

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Yep – totally skip the Epilogue! I really liked the way it ended before that. Plus, I’m pretty down on Epilogues in general right now.

  5. Amanda

    I was really expecting much lighter and more like Crazy Rich Asians. I might have enjoyed this more with less expectations. That said, the dark undertones in this book were great. I couldn’t decide how I felt about Mercy. I spent a lot of the book just wanting to shake her.

    And yes – the epilogue was too much

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I wasn’t as big of a fan of Crazy Rich Asians…I remember thinking it was too long? And – yes – Mercy should’ve been shaken a couple times there! Can we chalk it up to immaturity?

  6. Catherine

    Thanks for the link! Sometimes a “dark undertone” is exactly what’s needed, but I’m with you on the epilogue.

  7. Judy Krueger

    Excellent review. I never got around to this one when it first came out. You have moved it nearer to the top of the list for me again. Thanks.

  8. Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home

    I really enjoyed this book. The one thing I reflected on after I read it was how hard it would be to go back to life in “the real world” after living in Hong Kong. Having servants? Seriously?

    • Sarah Dickinson

      I know, right?! All the childcare! There was one passage in the book that really said it nicely (re: repatriating) – that people back home are interested in your expat experience for a few minutes, then they don’t want to hear about it anymore…they’d rather talk about local gossip, etc.

  9. Athira

    Love much of what you have to say about this book! Especially “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”. I will be checking this one out.

  10. Tara

    I’m a little late to comment on this one, but thank you for the review; I think you and Catherine have sold me on this one!

  11. Naomi

    Darkness that lurks just underneath the surface/ all is not what it seems – yes, this sounds like it could hit the spot!

    • Sarah Dickinson

      Yep – hit it for me! And I’m such a sucker for darkness running just below the surface.

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