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The Leftover Woman


The Leftover Woman

Jean Kwok's THE LEFTOVER WOMAN is an evocative, sweeping drama about motherhood, identity, and the casualties of restrictive policies in both the United States and China.

When Jasmine Yang arrives in New York, she is alone, broke and undocumented, on the run from her controlling, manipulative husband, Wen. Wed to the 26-year-old government worker when she was just 14, Jasmine has only known the abuse of her family, the control of her husband and the loss of her daughter, who died shortly after childbirth. Or so she was told.

Recently, Jasmine has discovered that Wen sold her daughter off to an American couple in an attempt to skirt his country’s One Child Policy, which would consider their child-making years done with the birth of a girl --- an unfavorable option when boys are so much more desirable and better able to continue the family name. Having already suffered a few miscarriages, along with the loss of her beloved grandmother and the estrangement of her childhood best friend, Anthony, Jasmine finds this loss not only unconscionable, but also the final straw in her marriage. She sells her wedding ring and contacts snakeheads --- powerful, dangerous men who can sneak people out of China and into new lives --- and sets off for America, where her daughter is living under the adoptive name Fiona Whitney.

"Jean Kwok is at the very top of her game here. This searing yet poignant exploration of the pull of motherhood is part drama, part mystery and all heart."

Meanwhile, in New York, publishing executive Rebecca Whitney is still reeling from a scandal that put not only her good name but also that of her publishing house at risk. One of her authors wrote a powerful, evocative memoir that turned out to be mostly lies, and now her credibility as an editor is in question. This would be enough of a blow to anyone’s confidence, but her guilt and shame come with the added edge that the publishing house was once run by her esteemed and beloved father. Rebecca has long tried to fill his shoes, and just when she thought she had it made, her best author was shredded by the media, her name was pulled from awards ceremonies, and her biggest competitor --- a fellow editor named Mason --- seems to have won their never-ending competition to be the best.

At least Rebecca has her family: handsome, charming Brandon, a polyglot who spoke five languages before he entered grade school; and her daughter, Fifi, a beautiful, sweet little girl whose adoption made their family whole. Because of her grueling career, Rebecca is not around for Fifi as much as she would like, but Brandon has lessened the weight of motherhood by suggesting they hire a Chinese nanny, Lucy, who can care for their daughter and help her feel connected to her heritage and culture. Lucy is devoted to Fifi, but lately Rebecca has felt the first pangs of jealousy arise when Fifi reaches for Lucy instead of her, or when Lucy and Brandon exchange jokes in Chinese.

As the reader knows, Fifi is Jasmine’s daughter, but there’s still plenty of mystery to THE LEFTOVER WOMAN. As Jasmine enters the world of cocktail waitressing at an exclusive adult club, we learn that she has been hiding a gorgeous face and body beneath her bulky clothes and shy looks. What other secrets is she holding inside of herself? As Rebecca starts to wonder if her perfect family is crumbling right alongside her career, it seems that Brandon is hiding something: a condom falls out of his coat pocket despite Rebecca’s infertility, and a whopping charge on their shared credit card points Rebecca in the direction of a seedy strip club that caters to Chinese clients. The obvious answer is that Brandon has fallen for their Chinese nanny and that he, Lucy and Fifi will make the perfect blended family. But there’s far more than tired clichés to the secrets within Rebecca’s household.

With Jasmine realizing more and more that she may never be able to give her daughter the world Rebecca can, her dreams seem farther away than ever. And despite the cash she earns at the club, the threat of her repayment to the snakeheads is always looming behind her, along with the worry that Wen will realize she is alive and find her. By the time Jasmine gets a text message from him promising that their reunion will be soon, the Whitney household also begins receiving threats, suggesting that the women are tied together by much more than their shared daughter. To ruin the surprise would be to ruin the book, so I’ll just say that Kwok writes the kind of twist you will never see coming. It will make you question everything you have read just as much as it fills in the gaps and adds new complexities to the already riveting plot.

Jean Kwok is at the very top of her game here. This searing yet poignant exploration of the pull of motherhood is part drama, part mystery and all heart. The idea of the “leftover” woman relates perfectly to both Jasmine and Rebecca, each left behind in the dramas of their lives and each desperate to be chosen --- or at least considered --- first for a change. Although it mostly follows the women’s own interpersonal lives, Kwok maintains an eerie tension evocative of a hard-boiled mystery that makes this novel, already compelling enough with its themes of motherhood, utterly propulsive. Kwok’s explorations of divides of culture and economy are powerful yet not overbearing. Her feelings are known, but she never preaches to the reader, choosing instead to highlight and portray the very real human sacrifices to these barriers and allowing us to see the effects of policies like China’s One Child Policy or America’s tough immigration acts.

For a book that is just under 300 pages, THE LEFTOVER WOMAN packs it all in efficiently, economically and convincingly…all without missing a beat. Kwok is more skilled than ever, more precise and cadenced with her prose, and more creative with her twists. Readers who loved SEARCHING FOR SYLVIE LEE will not be surprised that she only gets better with each book. But I suspect that newcomers will find a new favorite in this compelling, twisty drama.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on October 13, 2023

The Leftover Woman
by Jean Kwok