Girl in Translation: Hypnotically Compelling, But Forgettable

BlogHer Review

From the opening lines of Jean Kwok's novel Girl in Translation, I was hooked. Not because the writing is fabulous (it isn't) or because the story is particularly original (it isn't) but because I genuinely cared about the characters.

The novel opens with Kimberly Chang and her mother arriving in New York after immigrating from Hong Kong. Kimberly's mother speaks no English, and Kimberly's own vocabulary is limited. They live in a roach-infested apartment with no heat, and Kimberly's mother finds work in a sweatshop run by Kimberly's aunt. Kimberly is very smart, and it quickly becomes obvious that she has talents her classmates do not. But despite her intelligence, she takes the subway to the sweatshop every day after school, where she helps her mother late into the night. The novel focuses on Kimberly navigating her different worlds and identities -- Chinese immigrant, prep school student, sweatshop worker, girlfriend, daughter, caretaker.

Kwok's writing isn't spectacular. It's simplistic, often choppy. And all of her characters, with the exception of those who don't speak English very well, share almost exactly the same voice, which lends a contrived feel to the dialogue. But the little details save the story, like Kimberly explaining how she thinks of prices:

Ma also gave me $2.99 to buy a paperback Webster's dictionary. This cost us almost two hundred finished skirts, since we were paid 1.5 cents per skirt. For years, I calculated whether or not something was expensive by how many skirts it cost. In those days, the subway was 100 skirts just to get to the factory and back, a package of gum cost 7 skirts, a hot dog was 50 skirts, a new toy could range from 300 to 2,000 skirts.

While Kimberly's story is an interesting one, I felt like I'd read it before. You know: the immigrant with a knack for learning who takes everybody by surprise when he or she manages to rise out of the slums and into the Ivy League. Kimberly's feats (and by association, Kwok's -- the novel is semi-autobiographical) are no less admirable because they're familiar, but there was nothing to set Girl in Translation apart from its peers.

Girl in Translation follows Kimberly over many years, and while I've read books that do this very, very well, Kwok's isn't one of them. On several occasions I was startled to realize how much time had passed because Kimberly hadn't changed: she was the same person she'd been a few years before. The epilogue, for example, takes place 12 years after the end of the book, and not only had Kimberly not changed, but the entire passage felt tacked on and over-explanatory... in addition to unbelievable. Sometimes it's best not to tell the reader everything!

Regardless of the book's numerous flaws, I found it almost hypnotically compelling and kept picking it up in my spare moments, wondering what happened next. Still, it wasn't memorable; I've hardly thought about Kimberly since closing the book for the last time. The best characters -- the best books -- are the ones I find myself wondering about even years later. And I don't think I'll be wondering about Girl in Translation.

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