"The Leftover Woman" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
In “The Leftover Woman,” by Jean Kwok, the author channels the biblical story of Solomon and the baby that Solomon threatens to physically divide—the child two women claim as their own. Solomon rewards the woman who stops him from carrying out this brutal act by giving her the baby.
Kwok’s contemporary, mystery-thriller revolves around two women, Jasmine and Rebecca, who desperately love 6-year-old Fiona. Each claim her as their own.
Jasmine lives in China and is Fiona’s biological mother. Rebecca is Fiona’s adoptive mother who has raised her in the United States for all of her young life, unaware that her child has been procured illegally.
Jasmine gave birth to her daughter in a village in China. Her duplicitous and unfaithful husband Wen told Jasmine that the baby died. Jasmine has no idea that he sold baby Fiona to Brandon, an American friend of his. Wen wants a boy, and because of the Chinese policy of one child per family, he is more than willing to conveniently dispose of his daughter in hopes that his next child will be a boy.
Brandon and his wife Rebecca raise Fiona in a luxurious Manhattan apartment. When Jasmine accidentally discovers her husband Wen’s betrayal, she pays Asian thugs to get Fiona to New York. Jasmine is determined to get her child back and works at a horrible job in a strip club to earn money to pay back the people who financed her child’s journey across the ocean.
The chapters alternate between two narrators; Jasmine and Rebecca. Rebecca, a prestigious editor, lives in a rarefied world in which she can hire nannies and pay for expensive preschools. Because she is rarely home, she employs Lucy, a Chinese immigrant, to live with the family and care for Fiona. Rebecca questions her decision to hire Lucy—Rebecca finds her mousy, unkempt, and is bothered by her limited expertise with English. But Fiona loves Lucy dearly and is oblivious to her shortcomings.
Underneath the interesting plot line is a deeper narrative about the fallout from the one-child policy in China and the subordination of women in China. The unforeseen and unfair prejudices that may be held against a child in a family of a different race are addressed.
More astute readers than I may see the twist in the story; I did not. I read the novel while occasionally holding my breath to see what would happen to the main characters. Rebecca’s ability to use a gun and Jasmine's ability to perform martial arts suggested some foreshadowing, but the ending offers an unpredictable resolution.
Kwok is the author of “Searching for Sylvie Lee,” “Girl in Translation,” and other novels. Her work has been published in 20 countries.