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Review: Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐(4)

In Southern China, 1929, this story of family begins with the narration of eighteen-year-old Mei Ling, the middle daughter of a family pushed from their ancestral home by war, famine, disease, and death to the Guangdong province, a poorer village beyond the city. Coming to terms with the reality that they cannot feed their family, Mei Ling's parents spend what little money have have to arrange a marriage for their oldest daughter, Jah Jeh, hopeful that marriage will once again provide her the status and lifestyle they had before the war.

Out of options and desperate to provide good lives for their daughters, Fuchan and Mah-ma bind their daughter to a Gan Saan Haak - a widowed Chinese merchant who lives full-time in San Francisco, California, where the Americans are about to restrict Chinese immigration. Desperate to bring his young son into the country after his wife's death, Chinn Kai Li arranges for Jah Jeh to assume his first wife's identity in order for young Bo to pass through the restrictions and requirements of the American immigration laws.

Reeling from the possibility of never seeing her older sister again, Mei Ling wakes to find Jah Jeh ill and not recovering quickly enough. Unable to get back the fees they paid the match-maker, Mei Ling soon discovers that she must take her sister's place, assuming not only his first wife's identity on paper, but also pretending to be her sister to her new husband and son as she steps into the life two others should've had before her.

Laila Ibrahim, while not Chinese, portrayed immigration to the United States fairly realistically (at least coming from a native-born American who's never immigrated to a foreign-speaking country. Ibrahim has a unique tone to her writing, and her stylistic choices made the novel even more dynamic. For example, when Mei Ling boards the ship to leave her homeland and her family, the text is punctuated by blanks in conversation. In the dialogue, Ibrahim incorporated literal blanks, gradually filling in the English language as Mei Ling learns more of the difficult language.

The decision not to provide translations for the reader's sake immerses the audience in Mei Ling's experience. Much like the character herself, I found myself eager to understand and frustrated that none of the other characters were translating for me/us. The missing dialogue pushed me to better understand Mei and the disconnect she has to the environment and people around her.

It also allows us to watch Mei's growth with language, to understand her desire to acclimate, not only for the sake of belonging but also to help her children, who she knows will grow up both American and Chinese, forced to bridge the gap for their mother.

The portrayal of family in Paper Wife is complicated and messy. Encouraged into an arranged marriage in order for her family to afford to feed themselves, Mei accepts her position with poise and quiet strength. She leaves China with a man she's only just met and married, becoming an instant mother to his child, becoming an instant family in the eyes of everyone else. The portrayal of motherhood is touching as we watch Mei Ling cross the line between stranger and mother, comforting her new son Bo as they all move through tumultuous times. She's gentle and kind, and the relationship is beneficial to both of them as the brunt of Bo's care falls solely on Mei Ling's shoulders. Given someone to care for, someone she genuinely loves, the child connects her and Chinn Kai Li, her new husband, and helps soothe the pain of leaving her family in China, their relationships growing in distance with time apart.

The first interactions between Mei Ling and Kai Li are hopefully tense, and I found myself anxious for them at multiple points. The tone is tangible on the page: shuttered, hesitant, cautious. Through the depictions of their bodies, their looks, their positioning to one another and the child, she portrays Mei Ling's desire to please, to provide, and to be loved by a man who brought her into his father under the name of his deceased first wife.

Despite the summary and the set up as this novel being about the relationship between Kai Li and Mei Ling, Paper Wife is unfortunately not a romance. The story of family is more agape than eros, and as a reader, I got the sense that while Kai Li and Mei Ling don't settle together out of obligation, they are bonded through the family and the children in their lives, not necessarily a passion or intense love for each other. It's a comfortable love, but that's not what I expected or wanted for Mei Ling and Kai Li. They deserved passion.

The relationship between these two central characters was more of a plot device than a plot. It was often brushed aside and minimized in order to focus on the main plot of the novel, revolving around children. Half of this novel should've been Kai Li and Mei Ling's story; however, most of their time was behind the scenes, between the lines, implied rather than active. Kai Li especially became a device for Mei Ling - and the author - to reach their goals in the novel. They bonded through the children, through Kai Li always going out of his way to please Mei Li when it came to them. Mei Li loved Kai Li because he pleased her, did whatever he could to make her fit happily into the small family he created, and I wish there was more to their relationship.

As for the ending, I wanted more. In the last moment of suspense and anxiety, I already knew what would happen. The author used the same plot point once before, and it didn't work as well the second time around. Waiting was a prominent theme in this novel, and in the end, simply waiting for an outcome was too passive of an ending for it to be satisfying.

For two characters who are constantly taking action throughout Paper Wife, Mei Li and Kai Li became passive bystanders in the outcome of their own lives. While it might've been a realistic ending, it as well done as the period of waiting the author used earlier on.

Overall, Paper Wife was a stunning portrayal of a mother fighting to have a family, after giving up hers to save them all from poverty and starvation. In the U.S., Mei Ling goes after what she wants and cares for those who impact her life, creating a new home and a new community to raise happy, successful, and protected children.


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