I would love to overhear a book club conversation about Janice Y. K. Lee’s novel, The Expatriates. Let me picture the composition of that imaginary book club—all women, all mothers, maybe a few grandmothers in the mix. How might they discuss the maternal conundrums confronted by Lee’s female characters? Lee’s women array themselves along a spectrum of marital issues and parental traumas. A list of their general characteristics would, I’m afraid, sound trite. But, in the hands of an accomplished novelist, these women are individualized rather than stereotypical.
The happily married mother of three who suddenly finds herself without her third child. Anguished and guilty, Margaret turns inward, abandoning her remaining offspring and her genuinely caring husband. The youthful ne’er-do-well who skates through life, drifting from one man to the next and never taking responsibility for anyone or anything. When Marty finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, her past behavior squarely confronts her future actions. Finally, the lonely wife whose marriage is disintegrating over her unhealthy preoccupation about remaining childless. After David abruptly leaves her, Hilary has to confront her obsession and accept her fate.
Somehow, these women’s lives intertwine in an expatriate milieu. They all live in Hong Kong, an artificial environment. With too much spare time, they’re introspective. The first hundred pages of The Expatriates, in fact, is largely internal. Short chapters with alternate narrators take the reader inside each woman’s mind. We move from Margaret’s pain to Marty’s frivolity to Hilary’s indecision and back to Margaret again. These women know each other, but not well. Increasingly, though, their stories connect. And as their emotional defects become more apparent, their emotions connect, too.
Are their friendships believable or forced? I honestly can’t answer that question, which is why I would like to listen to a group of women steeped in motherhood and maternal bonds talk about Janice Y. K. Lee’s novel. I believe a certain sort of reader might well be quite fascinated by her characters, their stories, and their intersections. Not everyone, however. So I envision a lively discussion about The Expatriates and especially about the final pages. Believable or forced? I know what I think, but a childless reviewer must never presuppose! – Ann Ronald
Also available by Janice Y. K. Lee: The Piano Teacher