Girl in Translation

book coverI don’t like happy endings.

There.  I said it.

I’m one of those people who lives inside her head 24 hours of the day, my imagination never seeming to wind down. Most who know me would think I would seek out books with happy endings or endings that are neatly tied up. So not true. I like a satisfying ending.

And without giving away the ending to Jean Kwok’s book Girl in Translation, I will say it was a greatly satisfying ending, caught somewhere between happy and real. Too many authors make a happy ending for their novels and I consider this taking the easy way. Girl in Translation will leave you feeling, “this is the way it was supposed to end.”

 We’ve all been new in school, new in town and filled with those particular horrors of “What if no one likes me? What if no one even talks to me? What if no one notices me?” Take all of those feelings and tightly entwine them with being new to the country and not having a firm grasp of the language. Oh yeah, and add being a teenager to the mix and you have Girl in Translation.

We follow the main character, Ah-Kim Chang (or Kim as she’s known in America) as she and her mother emigrate to America with dreams and expectations of a better life, only to work 20 hour days in a sweat shop and live in an apartment filthier than  in any episode of Hoarders. The mother and daughter sometimes have to sleep in shifts to keep the roaches from crawling all over them.

The novel opens with Kim and her mother’s arrival in America, sponsored by Aunt Paula, an out-and-out cruel woman who owns the sweat shop. And we watch them until Kim heads off to college. My favorite part of this novel wasn’t so much a particular scene or plot twist. It was watching Kim grow up, clinging to her Chinese heritage at first, strangled by it as a teenager straddling both worlds, and then finding the balance between being and becoming.

 To me, the message of the novel wasn’t that these immigrants were strangers in a strange land but that they were humans in a new world and struggling-like the rest of us-to find their own way. And it was completely satisfying.