Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok – Book Review

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

When Kim was 11 years old, she and her mother moved from Hong Kong to New York. They seemed to be lucky in their move, Kim’s aunt was already in America and was able to help them get their green cards, give them housing when the arrived, help them find a more permanent residence, and employ Kim’s mother in the factory she managed. Until, that is, they realized that they were paying huge amounts from their paltry paychecks in loan repayment, were living in a dwelling unfit for human habitation (they had to heat the apartment by leaving the stove on), and that they were unable to meet their deadlines at the factory without Kim working long hours with her mother after school. Basically, not at all the life they expected when coming to America.

Luckily, Kim and her mother do have some hope for the future. Kim is an extraordinarily bright girl, and always excelled in her classes in Hong Kong. All she needs is to do the same thing in America, and then eventually she can rescue her mother from this life. Of course, success in school in Hong Kong doesn’t immediately translate to success in school in Brooklyn. First, Kim must navigate the cultural differences between her family and the people around her – and try to translate kidspeak.

“Girl in Translation” is an absolutely lovely novel, as is evidenced from the very first two pages (this quote is from an ARC, and may have changed in the final copy):

There’s a Chinese saying that the fates are winds that blow through our lives from every angle, urging us along the paths of time. those who are strong-willed may fight the storm and possibly choose their own road, while the weak must go where they are blown. I say I have not been so much pushed by winds as pulled forward by the force of my decisions. And all the while, I have longed for that which I could not have. At the time it seemed that everything I’d ever wanted was finally within reach. I made a decision that changed the trajectory of the rest of my life.

lf I had any criticism, I would say that at times Kim did not have enough flaws; she had huge reserves of strength and determination that kept her forever moving in the right direction. Perhaps she wasn’t always good, but neither did she ever really seem weak. However, I could accept her strength because she had essentially no choice but to be continually strong. If she could not do that, she and her mother would be lost under the press of their financial woes and limited options.

Interestingly, I was reading through “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” at the same time as I was reading “Girl in Translation” and couldn’t help but see some similarities: the impoverished family, the father more or less out of the picture, the mother working incredibly hard, the daughter choosing to become educated no matter what the difficulties.

At the risk of sounding corny, this is a fabulous coming-of-age novel about the power of education and determination. Not only that, but the writing is gorgeous and Kim is a compelling character. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
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15 comments to Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok – Book Review

  • I read this over the past two days and really liked it. The author will be reading at an Indie bookstore near me tomorrow and I look forward to seeing her. I liked the book.

  • This is next in my TBR pile and I can’t wait to get to it! I’m reading The Invisible Bridge right now (which I’m also loving) so it might be a while!

  • Amy

    Not corny at all. It sounds like a great book with a strong female character.

  • I just finished this book also and loved it. I liked Kim’s determination and also appreciated the relationship between Kim and her mother.

  • no doubt i will have to read this.
    great review, much appreciation.

  • You are so good to tie GIRL in with A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN! Did you see this blurb?: “A moving coming of age story, reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The possibility of Kimberly Chang’s extraordinary struggle and achievement is what makes America a great nation—generous, forgiving and full of hope. Kwok perfectly captures the voice and perspective of a young immigrant, and the result is a powerful work about love, sacrifice and faith.”—Min Jin Lee, author of the bestselling Free Food for Millionaires

    Wonderful review, per the usual, Jen! I think Kimberly has some of the societal (wrong word, maybe) flaws of occasionally getting caught up in other people’s opinions of her. She definitely wishes for better clothes and to be more accepted at her new school, but luckily is strong enough to get past these shortcomings. I thought Kimberly and her mother were both very real, compelling characters.

    • I did, after I wrote the review. It was the instance of both of them choosing to do what it took to go to a better school that really brought my attention to the similarities, as I had just read that section of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN for the first time.

  • I can’t wait to read this! It’s one of the books for the EW Summer Books Reading Challenge and everyone seems to think it’s wonderful!

  • DW

    Great review. I need to find the time to read this book and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn sounds good too. Two more books I’m adding to my TBR.

  • This sounds fantastic! I love coming of age stories and immigration stories.

  • I was just going to ask if this was on the Summer list, and Julie just answered my question! I’d love to get my hands on the audio of this one.

  • I was thinking of this one for the EW Summer challenge — now I’ll make an effort to read it.

  • I am a sucker for a good coming of age novel. I have an ARC languishing on my TBR shelf, but perhaps I’ll move it near the top of the pile. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!

  • great review! I really like immigrant fiction so I plan to pick this one up.

  • This one is on my TBR too. I was reading an interview of this author recently, and was quite amazed that she herself had been in Chinatown once living a very poor and hard life. The life experiences she mentioned were very hard.