Book Review: Girl in Translation

Girl in Translation
By: Jean Kwok
Published By: RiverheadTrade
Publication Date: April 29, 2010
Page Count: 350
Buy it at Indiebound, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
Source: Library, Audiobook
Audience: Literary Fiction, Memoir

Private prep school scholarship student by day and illegal sweatshop worker by night, this is the life of Kimberly (or her Chinese name, Ah-Kim) Chang in Jean Kwok’s engrossing and gorgeous story, Girl in Translation. And let me say this before anything else, “read” this book via audio. The narrator does such a wonderful job with the accent and the mispronunciation /mishearing of the English words – it really does add to the enjoyment of the story.

Kimberly and her widowed mother emigrate to the United States when Kim is just eleven years old, but instead of being welcomed by “the liberty goddess” in New York City as she has learned about in school, they are instead quieted away to their new home, a condemned apartment building complete with roaches and mice by their US relatives. They quickly realize that things are absolutely not the same as they were in Hong Kong where Kimberly was at the top of her class and her mother was able to make a living as a music teacher.

I’ll admit it, I’m a fan of rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps stories. I like to root for the underdog and I fight for those without a voice of their own. And though that’s part of the reason I adore this book, that isn’t the only reason I enjoyed it. The main reason is that Jean Kwok does such a great job giving a unique and distinct voice to each character throughout the book. Kimberly’s mother is quiet and self-sacrificing. She puts her head down, is grateful for what she has, and revels in the smallest joys. Kimberly’s Aunt Paula is villainous and completely believable as she actively works to keep her sister and her niece as poor and dependent on her as possible. I see this anti-intellectualism running rampant in my own classroom with non-immigrants – family members who don’t want their children to be more successful than they are, it happens. And Kimberly progresses from a shy eleven-year-old to a bold (by her mother’s standards), outspoken teenager. The subtle Americanization of Ah-Kim to Kimberly is something Kwok pulls off well. I honestly didn’t even notice it was happening until she spoke to her Aunt Paula halfway through the novel in a way I hear my 10th grade students talking every day.

I’ve debated on whether the writing or the story is what thrills me with this book – and honestly, I don’t really think I can decide. I think the writing plays a large part because of the way Kwok phonetically spells (and misspells) Chinese and English words to convey the difficulties Kimberly and her mother have adapting to their new homeland. The book is written from Kimberly's point of view, so there is a simplicity to the language and structure that I enjoyed. It made sense because of the character that was speaking - sort of like reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. I also think the story is one that readers will find equal parts fascinating, horrifying, and inspirational. This is a book that I’ve found myself thinking about hours after I’ve put it down.

Now that I’ve sold you on the book (You’ve read well past the break, haven’t you?), let me also say that this book has caused me to reflect on my review process. If I absolutely love (and I mean LOVE, in an all caps kind of way) the first 70% of a book, but then the author loses me at the end, what kind of review do I give it? In the case of this book, I decided on four birdies (it was a firm five birdie review until the last quarter of the book) with a spoiler-free note about the ending. The ending wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t for me. And it isn’t that I didn’t like it, but more that I found it to be clichéd and out of character for Kimberly. However, even with a somewhat rushed and compressed ending, I’m still a huge fan of this book. And there are plenty of people on Goodreads and Amazon reviewing it who didn’t mind the ending. ;)

Final Word: I was IN LOVE with this until the last quarter of the book. Even though the ending wasn’t what I expected, and seemed rushed, the rest of the book is good enough that I’m still recommending it to everyone I know. If you can get it on audio – DO IT. Hearing the mispronunciations of English words and the accent the narrator adds to the reading really adds to the book!

Goodreads Summary:  Introducing a fresh, exciting Chinese-American voice, an inspiring debut about an immigrant girl forced to choose between two worlds and two futures.

When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family’s future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition. Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

Through Kimberly’s story, author Jean Kwok, who also emigrated from Hong Kong as a young girl, brings to the page the lives of countless immigrants who are caught between the pressure to succeed in America, their duty to their family, and their own personal desires, exposing a world that we rarely hear about.

Written in an indelible voice that dramatizes the tensions of an immigrant girl growing up between two cultures, surrounded by a language and world only half understood, Girl in Translation is an unforgettable and classic novel of an American immigrant-a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love, and all that gets lost in translation.


  1. It does sound like a great book that I'd enjoy, and I'll give it a chance for sure! Adding it to the TBR list!

  2. I loved this book for all the reasons you stated, Julie. I really admired the MC and her resilience to keep moving when things got hard. Goodness knows, I would have thrown down the towel early one. The ending,though, broke my heart and surprised the heck out of me.

  3. Rummanah, I may have felt the same way about the ending, but I'd read a review that didn't alert to a spoiler in it and found out what happened before I read it. I think that may have colored my enjoyment/initial read on the ending.

  4. My aunt said this book was really amazing. I need to get myself a copy.

    1. It really was a fascinating novel. And like the other commenter said, heart-breaking in SO many places. I think if I went back and reviewed it again I'd give it a higher rating. This is one you have to let simmer I think. ;)


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