Books that deal with heartbreak seem to be my go-to listen lately. Maybe that’s just because I know the plot will be interesting and engaging, but nevertheless, I find myself gravitating towards heart-squeezing family dramas. The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee is full of devastating consequences, yet heartwarming relationships that make you yearn for each character’s eventual happiness.
The Expatriates is the inter-woven tale of three American women living in Hong Kong. Each woman is a part of the same very small expat community. Their reasons for coming to Hong Kong as well as their personal and professional lives may be different, but the situations that they find themselves in all become intertwined rather quickly, sometimes without them even realizing it. (I was constantly reminded of the idea that we are only separated from someone else by six degrees of separation throughout this book. And also by the fact that the smallest action can change our lives so drastically.)
Mercy is a young Korean American who finds herself in Hong King after her graduation from Columbia. She has moved to Hong Kong looking for a change from the normal and the promise of a more lucrative job. Marcy is haunted by a terrible accident that happened to her recently. Hilary is a housewife whose marriage is on the rocks. She gave up the bulk of her career to follow her husband, David, to Hong Kong, so he could further his career. Hilary finds herself thinking over and over about her inability to have a child and how if she was only able to conceive, her marriage problems would evaporate. Margaret is a married mother of three who is forced to deal with a shattering loss that has destroyed her life and her family. She is having to find a new normal, something she must survive even if she isn’t quiet sure how to do so.
Mercy, Hilary, and Margaret soon find their lives to be thoroughly enmeshed together in was neither of them expected. Each woman must deal with their own separate issues and struggles, but soon they fins that there are many common threads linking them together. Consequences run rampant through their lives, dictating their decisions, their lifestyles, and their relationships. This book was very moving and I found myself listening to it obsessively to try to figure out how their lives were going to unfold.
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Author Chang-Rae Lee admits that the first chapter of his book is based upon a tragic event in his father’s life — something so traumatic that his father had never disclosed it — until questioned by his then college-aged son. The chapter features June Han, an 11-year-old orphaned refugee during the Korean War, desperately struggling to flee the approaching military with her younger siblings in tow.
The chapters often leave the reader hanging, wondering what happened, only to open the next one to discover a new character in a totally different time period. We are later introduced to Hector, a handsome American who enlists to fight in Korea, but then decides to remain after the war to work in an orphanage. There, his life becomes entwined with June’s and also with Sylvie Tanner, the beautiful wife of the minister who runs the place. But Sylvie’s story reveals her own scarred and tragic past.
We primarily see June thirty years later, now a successful New York antiques dealer who is dying of cancer, as she reunites with a reluctant Hector in a search for her long-lost son. As the book spans three decades and several continents, The Surrendered is an epic saga, masterfully written with complex characterization, but also, according to Publisher’s Weekly, “a harrowing tale, bleak, haunting, often heartbreaking — and not to be missed.”
Inspired by the life of the author’s Korean mother, this first novel by Eugenia Kim is a beautiful and satisfying story. The Calligrapher’s Daughter spans 30 years of Korean history, from 1915-1945, and is narrated by najin Han, the daughter of an ultra-traditional and aristocratic calligrapher. Born in 1910 at the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Korea, her life, through privileged, is restricted by strict social standards, including a very limited education for women. When her father decides to marry her off at age 14, her mother bravely defies him by sending her instead to Seoul, where she serves as a companion to the young Princess Deokhye during the waning days of the centuries-old dynasty.
Later, Najin attends college and works as a teacher and school principal. When her parents again choose a husband for her, she is pleasantly surprised to find that she concurs with their choice of Calvin Cho, who is leaving to study for the ministry in America. However, only one day after her wedding, she is denied a passport. An entire decade passes, separated from her husband with little hope for reunion, as she struggles to survive the hardships and poverty brought on by World War II. Both lyrical and tragic, this novel celebrates the perseverance and strength of women — a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age saga.