The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

expatriatesA move abroad can be disorienting. There’s the bewildering adjustment to alien cultural traditions and accepted modes of behavior. The rush to make friends. The urge to be a part of something larger. As Janice Y.K. Lee aptly writes on the first page of her second novel, The Expatriates, people who relocate to a country not their own are “a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.”

But what happens when the reality of the adventure doesn’t live up to its potential?

Lee is an author familiar with being an outsider. An ethnic Korean born in Hong Kong and educated in America, she has spent much of her adult life moving back and forth from Hong Kong to New York, where she now lives with her husband and four children. Perhaps this feeling of “other” is why both of her novels feature expats struggling to forge paths forward on their new home turfs.

Unlike her 2009 best-selling debut, The Piano Teacher, a tempestuous page-turner that turned a broader eye on East-West relations while chronicling a British chauffeur’s disastrous affairs with two women during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II and the decade that followed, Lee’s latest endeavor, set in present-day Hong Kong, employs a more insular, even philosophical approach to storytelling. Though myriad tragedies do befall its three protagonists, “The Expatriates” seems more concerned with exploring how these displaced American women handle alienation and loss rather than spelling out the specifics of what derailed each of their lives in the first place.

Take the book’s most convincing and sympathetic character, Margaret Reade — a poised and beautiful middle-aged landscape architect, who puts her career on hold to follow her husband abroad. A year into their three-year stint in Hong Kong, the Reades’ lives are thrown into a tailspin when the youngest of their three children, G, suddenly vanishes in a crowded mall while the family is on vacation in Korea. Barely delving into “the incident” — an apparent kidnapping — Lee matter-of-factly writes of the change in Margaret’s status: “She is a woman who has two children. Not three.”

Partially responsible for the catastrophe is the unappealing Mercy, a surprisingly negligent and ill-behaved Columbia University graduate who moves into a 200-square-foot micro-studio in Hong Kong on a whim to get her life in order (or, as some might see it, prolong her immaturity). When we meet her, the 27-year-old is coming off a string of half-started relationships and failed temp jobs — including a short-lived gig as a nanny for the Reade kids. Lee’s description of the self-involved Mercy after G’s disappearance is telling: “She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online, and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed.”

And then there’s 38-year-old Hilary, a wealthy socialite attached to a man who “takes to Hong Kong the wrong way.” David works late, ignores the cracks in his sterile and childless marriage, and has a brief affair with a wayward girl in a bar — Mercy — so he can feel treasured again. Unfortunately, as these indiscretions often do, the act has lasting consequences for everyone involved. Uh-oh.

About two-thirds of the way through The Expatriates, Hilary asks herself how it is that life can be so fragile. It’s a question that hints not only at the crux of what binds Mercy, Margaret and her together, but also at Lee’s talent for infusing much-needed moments of reflection into what could otherwise devolve into maudlin melodrama. Sure, Mercy’s woe-is-me antics grate rather than incite sympathy, and the collapse of Hilary’s already stale relationship feels overshadowed by larger heartbreaks taking place elsewhere. But it’s Margaret’s bold and bare quest to persevere while holding out hope for G’s return that captures our unbridled attention.

Yet herein lies the sticking point. It’s hard not to wish Margaret’s misfortune — something open-ended and arguably more tortured than coping with the finality of a death — to take center stage instead of sharing the limelight with Hilary and Mercy’s struggles, which pale in comparison. And in the interest of not spilling spoilers, let’s just say that the book’s ending might ignite the ire (or bafflement) of more judgmental readers.

On the whole, however, The Expatriates succeeds as a nuanced reminder of how shockingly easy it can be to lose everything in a moment and of how to reinvent one’s life after a fall.

“You go through the motions of life until, slowly, they start to resemble a life,” Margaret thinks to herself as she looks back on her life a year after G is abducted. By allowing us a front-row seat to her jagged recovery, Lee proves just how tenuous the grip on what we deem ours can often be — and how important it is to move onward and upward, come what may.

Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (January 11, 2016)

%d bloggers like this: