Note: This review is not spoiler-free!
Jean Kwok, author of Mambo in Chinatown, returns with The Leftover Woman, a new novel that follows the lives of two women from totally disparate worlds: Jasmine, who is an undocumented immigrant in the United States from China and works as a cocktail waitress to pay her debts, and Rebecca, an American who is navigating a prominent career in publishing. Jasmine is fleeing an abusive marriage and seeking her daughter, who was put up for adoption immediately after her birth without her knowledge. The novel’s title is a translation of a derogatory Chinese phrase, 剩女 (shèng nǚ), referring to unmarried women in their late twenties or older.
However, Jasmine and Rebecca are, in fact, united in a crucial aspect of their lives: Rebecca’s adopted daughter, affectionately nicknamed Fifi, is the child in search of whom Jasmine has come to America. This connection puts them at direct odds, as Jasmine is determined to start a new life with the child who was wrongfully taken from her. Due to the demands of Rebecca’s career, Fifi is often cared for by her Chinese nanny Lucy, or her father Brandon. Rebecca’s disregard for Lucy, who speaks broken English and dresses poorly, is evident from her early chapters; her internal narration is continually disparaging about Lucy’s appearance, claiming that from Lucy’s clothes alone “you could almost forgive [the shop employee] for thinking they were a bunch of thieves.” A crucial reveal about halfway through the book is that Lucy is Jasmine herself, having taken the job of nanny in order to be closer to her daughter. “Lucy” is revealed to be an English name that Rebecca simply decided to use, due to its resemblance to Jasmine’s Chinese name.
Yet, despite her casual contempt for Lucy, Rebecca’s character still swoops in to defend Fifi and Lucy from a shop employee who is accusing them of stealing. Rebecca’s love for and protection of her daughter rivals the nuances of racism and classism exemplified in her relationship with Lucy. It is thus rather disappointing that Rebecca’s leverage of her own comparative privilege (“She deliberately allows her light coat to swing open, revealing the Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress underneath: sheer black lace over a golden slip. She looks down her nose at him, head high with her pale coiffed hair swept into a French twist”) and the way she expresses her prejudice are almost cartoonish. Passages like “Why had they decided to hire a nanny straight from China?…Couldn’t they have found someone more thoughtful, less frumpy, who understands better the value of appearances?” read like stock imaginings of prejudice, and render Rebecca less believable of a character, especially when it is clear the novel is capable of more.
The Leftover Woman embraces a range of topics with great emotional weight, including motherhood, adoption, abuse, and the hostility of the United States to undocumented immigrants, all of which together do make a reader truly hope for a kind resolution. However, The Leftover Woman seems to undermine itself with plotlines and archetypes that are too neat and tidy to be truly impactful. Jasmine realizes her wrongs in trying to take her biological daughter away from the adoptive parents who have raised her, but not before she reconnects with her lost childhood love Anthony, whom, as the epilogue reveals, she eventually returns to marry. His apparent girlfriend before Jasmine reappears in his life is totally inconsequential except as a minor roadblock.
Meanwhile, by the dramatic (though perhaps predictable) climax of the novel, Rebecca has realized the extent of her privileges to the point where she can say out loud, “I’m a white, well-educated woman attacked in my own home, defending my husband and child. No jury in the world is going to convict me” and puts herself forward to protect Jasmine. Such a revelation feels a little unearned, and it is unclear whether it is intentionally undermined by the fact that she is still referring to Jasmine in her mind as Lucy, a name that she thoughtlessly assigned to her. Too few consequences of the narrative seem to stick; at one point, in choosing to rush to Fifi’s side when Fifi is injured, Rebecca loses out on an important manuscript auction. Combined with the revelation of a personal scandal from a rival editor, Rebecca’s job, which has meant so much to her, is placed in jeopardy near the end of the novel. All of this is essentially brushed aside in the epilogue, with just the note that she was fired but found her feet again by starting an independent editorial company.
Jasmine has made her way across the world to find her daughter and all of her work has been in the hopes of taking her daughter back to China with her for a happier, better life. Her realization that she cannot take Fifi from Rebecca and Brandon, even at the cost of Jasmine herself missing out on Fifi’s life, is genuinely poignant, as is her choice to return to China alone to find her independence and her passions. In the epilogue, Fifi approaches a picture-perfect home, where Jasmine and Anthony have presumably married and had a child of their own, with very little to indicate what Jasmine did in the intervening years. On paper, the stakes of both women’s plotlines are very high, but the clean resolutions of the novel’s ending do not seem to do justice to the obstacles of their respective stories.
For some readers, the suspense of the novel and its major twists are perhaps enough to buoy the narrative; the characters are sympathetic enough and the basic questions of the plot broad enough to pique curiosity until the end. As an interrogation of privilege and race, however, The Leftover Woman hovers in place, and the book neglects the opportunity presented by its own characters to push into new territory.