The best books set in a particular city or country will make you want to book a flight immediately–and in a time when we can’t quite jet across the world yet, reading is all we have for the moment. But reading The Expatriates I almost (almost) felt like I’ve already visited Hong Kong and know it in my bones.
The book switches between the perspective of three American women who live in Hong Kong: Mercy, an Ivy League graduate seeking direction, Hilary, a housewife eager for a purpose, and Margaret, a mother facing a horrific loss. It’s hard to discuss the plot too much without spoilers, but with each perspective switch, you’ll be eager to piece together more and more of the story and learn more about the complicated city they call home.
It had the pulpy readability of Big Little Lies and Crazy Rich Asians, but it felt more substantial–even though this was published in 2016, before the current unrest in Hong Kong, the book explores many of the cultural and social divisions that exist in the city, and the legacies of colonialism that manifest themselves in the lives of these American not-quite-visitors. As an expat myself, Lee captures the complicated feelings of leaving home so succinctly, and I found myself equally compelled with every character’s perspective. Lee really gets in the head of each character and makes each one feel authentic–and the sly cleverness of her writing adds a lot of development even to side characters and those who only get a passing mention in the text.
I was a little indifferent on this one when I first started it–the beginning is quite slow but I’m glad I stuck with it. I found myself sneaking in spare seconds whenever I could. I listened to the audiobook, which was very good quality, although the reader’s insistence on doing stereotypical “Asian” accents for some characters was at times unsettling. The story was incredibly compelling, and snuck up on me. Maybe in part due to the fact that I read it in February and it makes me nostalgic(?) for the Before Times, but I’m still quite excited to see what Lee does next.
Also – for the love of God, if this gets turned into a TV show (rumours are already swirling, with Nicole Kidman attached), please don’t give it a season 2. I’m already trying to manifest the inevitable Normal People Season 2 out of existence and I can only do so much.
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