Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Title: Girl in Translation
Author: Jean Kwok
Genre: Contemporary fiction, multicultural fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover, 2010
Source: Audiobook from library
Read for: Alex Awards Challenge

Kimberly and her mother immigrate to New York City from Hong Kong with high hopes of a much better life. They find themselves rather disappointed when they find themselves in a freezing, roach-infested apartment, in serious debt to Kimberly's Aunt Paula, who helped to bring them to America. Kimberly's mother doesn't speak English, and Kimberly is none too certain what many of her fast-talking classmates are saying herself. However, despite the difficulty of adjusting to life in America and Aunt Paula's oppression, Kimberly uses her talents to overcome her circumstances.

This book grabbed me from the very first sentence, and I was swept up for the entire time. I listened on audio, and it was a great option for this book. The narrator was dynamic and emotional, and I felt connected to Kimberly and her friends and family.

The story is told in the first person, and Kimberly's voice is distinct and powerful. Her story begins when she is in elementary school and follows her through the beginnings of her adult career. Kimberly goes through the typical ins and outs of growing up coupled with her differentness from her classmates and her misunderstandings of American culture. She shoulders the heavy burden of not only living in severe poverty and illegally working with her mother in a factory after school to help earn money, but also keeping the rest of the world from finding out about the way she lives.

The secondary characters are just as vibrant as Kimberly. Her best friend Annette, who is passionate and boisterous, supports Kimberly throughout their teenage years, despite being shut out of the complicated secrets of Kimberly's life. Then there is Curt, the popular it-boy at Kimberly's high school who fixates on her despite her "differentness." And of course, there is Matt -- another boy who works at the factory, and who has the greatest influence on Kimberly's life of all.

Like Kimberly, Jean Kwok immigrated from Hong Kong when she was a young girl, which I think is one of the reasons why this book has so much depth and power -- it is frequently coming from personal experience.

I think Girl in Translation would be a fantastic choice for a book club due to the complex decisions that Kimberly has to make throughout the book. This book doesn't mute anything -- Kimberly's struggles are poignant and painful, with no easy solutions. While some of her decisions left me gaping in disbelief, at the same time when I considered how I would face them, I had no answer.

For a powerful, moving coming-of-age story, Girl in Translation should leave readers satisfied.

4 stars

Warnings: Some drug use, a scene of sensuality


  1. I loved this book and it took me almost no time to read it. I now encourage the students at my school to read it and they also like it

    1. Hooray for getting students to read! This book was spread out for me over 3 weeks because I was listening to it, but by the end, I was doing everything around the house with my headphones in.

  2. This sounds like a book I would enjoy. Great review!

  3. OH YAY!!!!!

    First of all, I'm so glad you made it around to this book because I have made it no secret to everyone that I know how much I love it. It is a beautiful book.

    Secondly, YAY for Alex Award books!

    Third, I'm so glad you went with the audio version of the book. I read both print and audio and while the print was great, I really thought the audio added that something EXTRA - in particular because of the narrator's accent and pronunciation of certain sounds and words. For me, I thought it made me feel closer to Kimberly and Ma somehow. I'm not even sure that makes any sense.

    There were several parts of the audio version, too, that literally made me tear up. I hate to mention them here for fear of potential spoilers but I'm sure you can imagine one or two of them. This is just a great, wonderful, beautiful story and I'm SO GLAD you read and enjoyed it. YAY!!!

    1. Thank you for recommending it to me so long ago! I never forgot about it! I have to admit I was actually not going to listen to the audio on this one because usually I just do audio on rereads or really light reads. But my grandma had it out from the library and offered to put it on my ipod so I could listen too, so I thought, "Why not?" I am so glad that I did, because this is definitely one of the best audiobooks I've ever listened to!

  4. Loved your review! Sounds like this is a very well-rounded story. I love when authors take the time to develop secondary characters instead of leaving them flat and lifeless.

    1. It is very well-rounded and well thought out. I would definitely recommend reading it!


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