The Expatriates, the fine new novel from Janice Y. K. Lee, opens with images so strange, you’re promptly thrown off balance. Not a bad trick for a book about exile.
“A slow-roasted unicorn,” the story begins. “A baked, butterflied baby dragon, spread-eagled, spine a delicate slope in the pan. A phoenix perhaps, slightly charred from its rebirth, sprinkled with sugar, flesh caramelized from the heat. That’s what she wants to eat: a mythical creature, something slightly otherworldly, something not real.”
The “she” in the passage is Mercy Cho, a twenty-seven-year-old Columbia grad who is barely scraping by in Hong Kong. Three years before, when her Ivy League education failed her in New York’s harsh job market, Mercy moved abroad. Instead of the fresh start she hoped for, though, Mercy has stumbled into catastrophe. Now, broke and broken, she spends her days holed up in a rented room.
Mercy’s downward spiral — bad luck fueled by bad decisions — has upended the lives of those around her. Among the victims is the Reade family, Margaret and Clarke and their three young children, who moved to Hong Kong for Clarke’s job with a U.S. multinational. After meeting Mercy on a boating trip, Margaret impulsively hires the young woman to help with the kids on an upcoming vacation to South Korea.
Though the kids like Mercy, her behavior gives Margaret pause. She’s an hour late to the airport, lets the children run wild in the hotel lobby, then leaves them alone in the hotel room after bedtime while she goes to the bar for a drink. By the time the Clarkes and Mercy have returned to Hong Kong, their lives are forever altered.
Also ensnared are Hilary and David Starr, who are eight years into their Hong Kong residency. Hilary can’t get pregnant, so she’s been borrowing a mixed-race orphan from a group home. She brings him to her opulent house for a weekly piano lesson, after which she returns the confused boy to his orphanage. David, meanwhile, may be drifting into infidelity, but Hilary is deliberately looking the other way.
Lee, the bestselling author of The Piano Teacher, was born and raised in Hong Kong. In The Expatriates, she probes the chasm between the moneyed foreigners who arrive daily to seek their fortunes on the island and the locals who have no choice but to serve them. As with any upstairs-downstairs division, because they see everything, the servants have a measure of power.
“They knew which vase got thrown, because they clean it up in the morning,” Lee writes. “They know when sir gets a call from a strange woman with an unknown, hesitant voice, or comes in at 3:00 a.m. when the ma’am is in America, or when the teenage children throw a party when their parents are out of town and hand them $500 to ‘clean up’ and keep their mouths shut. They know so much.”
Though the newcomers have left their home countries to steep themselves in new experiences and seek out unknown worlds, Lee lets us know that soon enough, those worlds will defeat them.
“After a few years, even the most well-meaning Americans found themselves calling only other Americans and doing Super Bowl breakfasts . . . and Thanksgivings at the club with other families,” Lee writes. “You found yourself somehow more American than ever.”
As with The Piano Teacher, Lee writes The Expatriates from her three main characters’ points of view. Though employing the present tense, which gives the book a jittery kind of momentum, Lee circles repeatedly into back-story. She shows you how these women, unlikely to ever meet in the U.S., have come to play pivotal roles in one another’s Hong Kong lives.
There’s a distant tone to much of the novel, but it proves as deceptive as the fantasies of expatriate life: Lee tells devastating stories at an emotional remove, yet each blow as it falls is deeply felt. As the narrative moves forward, as characters meet and paths collide, it’s a pleasure that the mechanics of plot fly so gracefully under the radar.
For all its keen and delightful insight into race and class and culture, The Expatriates turns out to be a book about parenthood. When a child enters or exits your life, Lee tells us, the potential for love and loss is so deep, so profound, it makes expatriates of us all.