THE LEFTOVER WOMAN, by Jean Kwok
Jasmine, one of two protagonists in Jean Kwok’s intriguing fourth novel, “The Leftover Woman,” reveals little to the reader at first. Seeing her on the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown, we quickly understand that she’s a woman with a complicated past. But like the frumpy clothes she wears to disguise her appearance, her thoughts and words are meant to throw us off the track. As Jasmine trudges from one job interview to the next, searching for work that will help pay off the “snakeheads” who helped her emigrate from China, she remains as invisible to readers as she is to her pursuers.
Slowly, we learn a bit more of her back story. When Jasmine was just 14, her parents married her off to Wen, a successful businessman. In becoming his wife, she left behind Anthony, her closest friend, who cut ties when her engagement was announced. Jasmine loved and feared her husband, and had several miscarriages before carrying a baby to term, only to be told that her daughter died soon after birth. How and why Jasmine ran away from Wen and her village we come to know little by little, but it’s always clear that Jasmine carries many secrets.
After failing to find work — she doesn’t speak English or have the necessary documents — Jasmine reluctantly becomes a cocktail waitress at Opium, a shady establishment where scantily clad servers work alongside dancers who strip for drunken male customers. When Jasmine changes into the requisite black leather dress (“shaped to every curve”), we realize that one of the many things she’s hidden is her beauty.
But there’s another story line at play here — and how, or whether, the two will intersect is at first a mystery. Kwok’s other key player is Rebecca, a wealthy book publishing executive who, along with her husband, Brandon, adopted a Chinese girl several years before. The pair dote on Fiona (“Fifi”), as does Lucy, their live-in Chinese nanny who cares for the girl as if the two of them are family.
When we meet Rebecca, her life is beginning to fray around the edges. A literary scandal threatens to engulf her career and her marriage. She’s preoccupied with her high-powered job but yearns for more time with Fifi. Rebecca envies Lucy’s closeness with her daughter — and something about Lucy arouses her suspicions, though she can’t put her finger on why. Her unsettled mind leads her from one misguided conclusion to the next until she begins to doubt even her husband’s and her daughter’s love.
In Part 4 of “The Leftover Woman,” the puzzle pieces begin to fit together. We learn that China’s one-child policy has dictated the terms of Jasmine’s life; her closely held secrets are all the protection she has from her powerful husband. They’re also safeguarding someone she loves, who doesn’t know Jasmine exists. How this all resolves may be predictable, but the pages keep turning.
Kwok is a skilled writer of suspenseful family drama whose best-selling novels include “Girl in Translation” and “Searching for Sylvie Lee.” And while the author’s latest suffers from an abundance of tropes, clichés and stereotypes, it builds momentum and texture in its final chapters. We root for Jasmine and Rebecca as they face impossible choices and emerge stronger for all the battles they’ve fought, always resisting becoming “leftover” women.
Leigh Haber was director of Oprah’s Book Club from 2012 to 2022 and books editor for O, the Oprah Magazine. She is currently a freelance writer, editor and publishing strategist.
THE LEFTOVER WOMAN | By Jean Kwok | William Morrow | 288 pp. | $30