By Janice Y.K. Lee – In December I read Lee’s debut novel, The Piano Teacher, only to realize her second book was the January selection of my book club. I now feel quite immersed in the fascinating multicultural community of Hong Kong. This book, which takes place in the current era, is told from the point of view of three American women in Hong Kong for indefinite periods.
Mercy is a young, single Korean-American graduate of Columbia University who can’t seem to get started in a career or a relationship. This would be no surprise to the Korean fortune-tellers back in Flushing who threw a pall over her future when they said her life would be muddled and full of bad luck. Margaret is a happily married mother of three on whom terrible tragedy falls. And Hilary, who has a husband and gobs of family money but lacks the one thing she thinks would make her happiest—a child of her own. In the hothouse, insulated community of Hong Kong that Lee describes, the three women’s stories inevitably intertwine.
“The new expatriates arrive practically on the hour, every day of the week. They get off Cathay Pacific flights from New York, BA from London, Garuda from Jakarta, ANA from Tokyo, carrying briefcases, carrying Louis Vuitton handbags, carrying babies and bottles, carrying exhaustion and excitement and frustration. . . . They are Chinese, Irish, French, Korean, American—a veritable UN of fortune-seekers, willing sheep, life-changers, come to find their future selves.”
For the women, Hong Kong is a revelation. Everyone has help—the near-invisible Chinese maids and cooks and nannies and drivers. The married ones have come for their husband’s job and left their own careers, if they had them, mostly behind. Freedom from whole categories of daily routine enables a different, more demanding social life. Luncheons, the club. And a fixation on motherhood. Lee is a beautiful writer and an expert observer of people, creating many moments that are funny as well as painful.
Each of the women finds herself in key situations that probably never would have existed stateside. And how that will eventually play out is in her own hands. While I never did understand Mercy’s inability or unwillingness to get hold of her future—she’s like the smooth side of velcro—and while New York Times reviewer Maggie Pouncey complains that too much of Margaret’s suffering occurs off-stage, the book was nevertheless an absorbing read. Perhaps we’re observing the characters more with a weak pair of binoculars than a magnifying glass, but we see a lot of the landscape that shapes their actions.