A richly detailed novel that rubs away at the luster of expat life and examines how the bonds of motherhood or, really,...



In Lee’s second novel after the bestselling The Piano Teacher (2009), Hong Kong sets the stage for stories of expatriation, cultural divide, and, most strikingly, the varying ways in which grief causes isolation, as seen through three connected women.

“You can survive a tragedy, given time,” thinks Mercy, a mid-20s Korean-American Columbia graduate who moved to Hong Kong for a fresh start after years of being unlucky in life. Unfortunately, a change in scenery doesn’t cause much of a change in her happiness; desperate for a job, she agrees to accompany a wealthy American couple and their three children on a trip to Korea, where a terrible “incident” involving one of the children—that's what everyone chooses to call it, hardly capable of being direct—occurs and she is deemed responsible. The novel begins nearly a year later, a year during which grief has settled in Mercy’s core, as well as in Margaret Reade’s, the beautiful family matriarch who hired Mercy. As Mercy “wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed,” Margaret is dealing with similar feelings—“she cannot live. She cannot not live”—and yet the two women are completely isolated from one another and from their community of expats, whose beautiful families and lavish lifestyles now seem unreal, untouchable. Lee’s portrayal of Margaret’s grief is the most powerful; the quiet, daily suffering of a mother who’s experienced unspeakable loss is profound: “she is aware of a black hole that she must avoid at all costs. She is teetering at the edge of it, peering down.” The women’s isolation is mirrored in Hong Kong’s expat culture, which Lee describes in full-bodied detail, a culture painted in rich, tropical color—but only on the surface. A third woman, Hilary, is also connected to this story, but less intensely, and her experience with grief and isolation—while relatable—pales in comparison to Margaret’s, as well as to Mercy’s level of disassociation. An unfortunate side effect of unraveling tragedy is that these characters are lost in reflection, and so there's not much present action and the narrative is often lacking immediacy. Some plot threads beg for more conflict, others are simply forgotten—this book gets lost in thought.

A richly detailed novel that rubs away at the luster of expat life and examines how the bonds of motherhood or, really, womanhood, can call back even those who are furthest adrift. 

Pub Date: Jan. 12, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-525-42947-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 5, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

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A financier's Ponzi scheme unravels to disastrous effect, revealing the unexpected connections among a cast of disparate characters.

How did Vincent Smith fall overboard from a container ship near the coast of Mauritania, fathoms away from her former life as Jonathan Alkaitis' pretend trophy wife? In this long-anticipated follow-up to Station Eleven (2014), Mandel uses Vincent's disappearance to pick through the wreckage of Alkaitis' fraudulent investment scheme, which ripples through hundreds of lives. There's Paul, Vincent's half brother, a composer and addict in recovery; Olivia, an octogenarian painter who invested her retirement savings in Alkaitis' funds; Leon, a former consultant for a shipping company; and a chorus of office workers who enabled Alkaitis and are terrified of facing the consequences. Slowly, Mandel reveals how her characters struggle to align their stations in life with their visions for what they could be. For Vincent, the promise of transformation comes when she's offered a stint with Alkaitis in "the kingdom of money." Here, the rules of reality are different and time expands, allowing her to pursue video art others find pointless. For Alkaitis, reality itself is too much to bear. In his jail cell, he is confronted by the ghosts of his victims and escapes into "the counterlife," a soothing alternate reality in which he avoided punishment. It's in these dreamy sections that Mandel's ideas about guilt and responsibility, wealth and comfort, the real and the imagined, begin to cohere. At its heart, this is a ghost story in which every boundary is blurred, from the moral to the physical. How far will Alkaitis go to deny responsibility for his actions? And how quickly will his wealth corrupt the ambitions of those in proximity to it? In luminous prose, Mandel shows how easy it is to become caught in a web of unintended consequences and how disastrous it can be when such fragile bonds shatter under pressure.

A strange, subtle, and haunting novel.

Pub Date: March 24, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-52114-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 25, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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