Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review: Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Title: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Enjoyment Rating: 6/10
Referral: I saw it on several friends' Goodreads lists
Source: Audible for iPhone
Books I've read this year: 138

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." That's how I'd characterize Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation. On the one hand, Ah Kim and her mother have it hard. They exchange a relatively comfortable life in Hong Kong, where Kim's mother was a music teacher, for a life living in an unheated, rat- and cockroach-infested hovel in Brooklyn, for a job that pays a penny per skirt, for choices determined by Kim's bitter aunt, the one who found them the apartment and the job and feels inclined to keep them in a state of destitution.

On the other hand, Kim has brains. She knows how to work hard. And after a rough start at her public elementary school with an almost criminally unfeeling teacher, her brains are recognized. She goes straight from one of the worst public schools in NYC to one of the best private schools. Still, culture and language continue to make Kim feel foreign. I think that Kwok does a nice job portraying Kim's inner struggles, but the book would have worked better for me if it had been a little more nuanced. Instead, Kim comes off as some kind of Greek goddess, a character where only the best or the worst things happen to her and nothing in between. In the last few pages, I get a sense that Kim might see her overarching ambition as something that has its drawbacks, but her perspective is so singularly focused during the first 90% of the book, that this maturity seems a little out of place.

This next part is a spoiler, so don't read it if you think you might want to read the book. While I know it is possible to get pregnant the first and only time a couple has sex, even if that couple has sex with a condom, it seems like every time a teenager in a book has sex, she will definitely get pregnant. That's a trope that we need to give up. Please promise me that if I ever include a character who gets pregnant after a single sexual encounter, you will shoot me or something. Yuck.

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