Book Review of Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Posted May 9, 2012 by Kara in Uncategorized / 9 Comments

Publisher: Penguin
Release Date: May 4th, 2011
Pages: 293
Genre: Adult Contemporary, Cultural Fiction
Source: I own a copy of this book

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.


So I’m not really in a gushing mood and I’m going to keep this fairly short, but y’all should know how fantastic this book is. I rarely give out 5 star ratings, so that should be an indicator of how special I thought this book was. I see that many people I know have already read it, so you know what I’m talking about. For those that don’t, you’re going to want to get on that. 

The one thing that blew me away the most about Girl in Translation was the voice. Holy @*&(*&#($@@. It was freaking fantastic.  The voice of the character Kimberley will seriously make you feel like you are in her head. Right in there like a little neuron. Shut up and stop making fun of me. I am completely wowed by the fact that this is Jean Kwok’s debut novel. I don’t know if this was a one-time thing or if she intends to write another book, but oh my god, I hope it’s not the first one. It’s just that I know this story was similar to her own experiences so maybe she sort of meant for it to be a pseudo-memoir and she’s not going to write again, but oh god I hope not. I nearly die every day Arthur Golden doesn’t write another book, I don’t think I can take it with this author too. 

Oh yeah. I was writing a book review. So the way this book made me feel. Dude. I cried like five times. Mostly when good things happened to Kimberley. Because her life was such shit and she and her mother had it so hard that when something good DID happen, the reader (me) really felt it. I fell in love with Kimberley as a little girl and I watched her grow throughout the course of the novel and I just felt like I was living life through her eyes. This was an extremely emotional read for me. 

Another thing you should know is the tremendous crossover appeal this book has. It isn’t a YA book. But I definitely think it is a book YA readers would enjoy. Even if you only read YA, if you are ever thinking of reading outside the genre, this should be the book you pick up. Kimberley spends most of the book as a child and a teen, and only towards the end is she an adult. Make no mistake though, this is not an easy read. It’s pretty depressing in parts. But like I said, when good things happen to her (and they do), it is sooo worth it. 

This book follows Kimberley’s life as she grows up as a new Chinese immigrant living in New York City. You follow her though her hardships and successes, like growing up in a cockroach and rat infested apartment with no heat. Hearing about cockroaches is frickin’ gross. I have a cockroach phobia, and let me tell you, that was not fun for me to read. But I did. And I loved it. She basically works in a sweatshop in Chinatown as a child so her and her mother can afford rent to live in an apartment that is illegal to live in. There’s a bit of romance too. And it’s not an easy road for them. Good things happen in the story. Eventually. I won’t spoil those for you. But funnily enough, this book has a very simple plot. It’s subtle but it’s amazing. I think it’s a fantastic book about the immigrant experience. It makes me want to read more. 

It’s hard with 5 star reviews. I hate writing them. I feel like I didn’t say enough. But there was literally nothing wrong with this book. I could gush and gush, but really, if the subject interests you, you need to read it. And if you already have? I would love your comments down there so you can articulate why YOU loved it so much. Because I am having a difficult time putting it in words. Note: Please excuse the mess of thoughts in this review.

Favorite Quote:

“Crazy melon,” I taught her in Chinese.
“She’s a guw gwah,” she said, giggling, her tones for crazy and melon so off that I barely knew what she was saying. No other Chinese would be able to understand her, which was a good thing. Annette was referring to a girl in our class she didn’t like because she said the girl was a know-it-all, which she also wrote down for me. It confused me, because wasn’t it a good thing to know so much?”    

9 responses to “Book Review of Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

  1. I definitely need to read this one, even though we may not have precisely the same taste (I was not a fan of Memoirs of a Geisha).

    It totally is a good thing to know all the things!

  2. Ha, I love this review, Kara! I totally feel the same way when I write 5 star reviews, I feel like I’m just going on and on about how much I liked it but I totally understand *why* you enjoyed this so much and I am definitely going to grab a copy!

    • Thank you. Glad you liked it. Because I felt like I rambled like a nut through this entire review. I hope you enjoy it. If it made you want to read it, I must have done something right. I have no idea what it was though. LOL.

  3. Interesting pick.

    Thanks for stopping by
    @ Livin’ Life Through Books.

    P.s., I understand that IMM is not original, and neither was book haul, but the post I saw for book haul was a blogger claiming that they were the one to come up with the idea, when they started posting instead of IMM due to the situation.

    • I’m not sure what you are saying, but thank you for commenting. I’m sure no one claimed that they were the creator of the book haul. I no longer participate in anything Story Siren related. But I still do book haul posts. I’m participating in Stacking the Shelves. And I will continue to do do. It’s not plagiarism. Parajunkee will be covering this topic in her BB101 post.

  4. Thank you for the review.
    I think this I just might have to pick this up! I haven’t heard of Jean Kwok before today, but that woman is impressive (from the short bio I read of her just now on Amazon), a Harvard graduate while working four jobs…damn.
    I am intrigued since I emigrated from Hong Kong as well…but I fortunately didn’t have to work in any sweatshop.
    From that short quote, I see what you mean when you said her voice was special =).

    and I like the cover. a lot.

    Lilian @ A Novel Toybox

    • Lillian-Thank you so much for commenting. If you can hang tight, I have a giveaway for this book coming in June. But I won’t stop you if you have to have it NOW. LOL. She is a very impressive lady. I do hope she writes more. I thought the book was very special.

  5. Amy

    This sounds so good!! I know that you rarely give 5 star reviews, so I am sure that it’s an amazing book!! Fantastic review chick!!

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