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“The Expatriates” by Janice Y. K. Lee is a novel about a large, affluent, expatriate community in Hong Kong. The story revolves around the relationships of three very different American women living in that community. Each of the three women has her own set of circumstances that she must face while living abroad.
Even though the city is teeming with people, Americans tend to socialize with their own circle. They eat at the same restaurants and belong to the same clubs. Although these three women do not know each other very well, they are certain to see each other frequently. The expat community also serves as a character in this novel.
Expats, according to the author, are living with company benefits, where the local citizen’s “annual wage is the cost of expensive Italian shoes.” Most live behind guarded gates, sheltered from the “brutal realities just outside.”
The expats have also left friends and family behind, so the friends they make overseas tend to be the strongest friends of their lives. The women need each other. They become like each other’s family.
The three women are narrators of the story. Mercy, a young Korean American and a recent Columbia University graduate who has come to Hong Kong, is at loose ends. Because of a terrible incident in her recent past, she tries to find where she belongs in this world. Hilary is a wealthy housewife who followed her lawyer husband to Hong Kong and is struggling to have a baby. She is hoping this new environment will help their troubled marriage. Margaret is a happily married mother of three. The family has gone overseas, the parents choosing to give the children access to other cultures. Then tragedy strikes, and Margaret is unable to move past her sorrows.
The lives and inner thoughts of these three women shape the narrative. The author keeps the focus on them in moments of weakness, strength and the realities of life. Their lives collide with devastating consequences. As the three women work through their various issues, they find new strengths, wisdom and the power to forgive.
All this is set against the life of an American expatriate. The novel is also a social satire as the author writes interestingly about class, culture and race. The portrayal of motherhood is powerful, as is the tension between the moneyed expats and the impoverished locals.
The author provides a prologue that discusses the reasons people move to other countries and what their experiences are like.