The Leftover Woman by Jean Kwok

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Jean Kwok is an award-winning, New York Times and international bestselling Chinese American author. She immigrated from Hong Kong to Brooklyn when she was very young and worked in a Chinatown clothing factory for much of her childhood while living in very impoverished conditions. Because of this, she is well positioned to write about both the Chinese culture and conditions endured by some immigrants to the ‘Beautiful Country’.

The Leftover Woman is the fourth novel by this author which has a definite Chinese flavour. Kwok’s previous books include Searching for Sylvie Lee (John Murray), an instant New York Times bestseller and Girl in Translation (Penguin), among others. Interestingly, Jean Kwok was one of twelve contemporary authors asked to write an authorized, original Miss Marple story by the Agatha Christie estate, Marple: Twelve New Mysteries.

The term “leftover woman” refers to a Chinese state media campaign that strongly encourages single professional, educated women to get married and have children before they’re 27 years old or they will become society’s unwanted leftovers. However, in this story it is the feeling experienced by Jasmine who believes that she is the woman that no one wanted. She felt leftover like scraps on the table. She believed that everyone had carved away and taken what they wanted from her until all that was left was her empty shell.

This story says much about Chinese politics and power which control the lives of many. Jasmine flees from this environment when she discovers that the girl child she has birthed has been adopted to an American couple. She had previously been informed of the child’s death. She becomes entangled in the seedy side of humanity when she finds her way to this new land on her quest to reclaim her daughter.

But this is not just a story about one woman. It is also a story of the adopted mother who struggles with her love for this child and her career. The differences between these two women are evident. One is a highly educated businesswoman from a sophisticated background while the other has nothing, not even the language to converse in the country which she has entered illegally.  As the author so aptly says, it was like a chicken talking to a duck. Yet these two women from different cultures share many similarities.

While one of them feels like she had been spun through life like a leaf in the wind, hurtling through a tunnel into her future (87), the other,  who believed that she had been blessed with the love of her husband and daughter, now feels that their affections may be turned in a different direction, while the security of her job and her father’s legacy may also be slipping out of her grasp.

It is interesting to read the literal descriptions which this story contains and the wisdom of Chinese sayings to be found scattered throughout this book, such as: When you love the house, you must love the crows on the roof as well (217) and walk often enough by the river’s edges and your shoes will get wet (126).

Jean Kwok has created a story which shows the strength of a mother’s love, whether a birth mother or adoptive mother. This book takes the reader into a world of hardship and male domination, of possession and cruelty but it also foregrounds long lasting and deep love. It is a story of contrasts between cultures yet also a merging of one into the other where those who are the most vulnerable and feel the most isolated can be exploited.

This book has a lot to offer the reader.

A television series based on the novel is in development by production company Fifth Season.

The Leftover Woman

(2024)

by Jean Kwok

Viper

ISBN: 978 180522 011 4

$39.99; 288pp

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