Review–Travails of a Trailing Spouse by Stephanie Suga Chen

***I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review***

Travails of a Trailing Spouse by Stephanie Suga Chen, a US expatriate based in Singapore, is a work of fiction that opens with Sarah, a successful but unhappy lawyer in the US who one day gets to gleefully throw her resignation letter onto her senior partner’s desk when her husband Jason, a neuroscientist, gets a job in Singapore. Sarah and Jason say their farewells and, with their two children, fly off to a new country, a new condo, and a completely new life. The country? Easy to adapt to, with familiar food and brands (at jaw-dropping prices – $15 for a bag of shredded mozzarella!) And life in the condo is like freshman year all over again, a dorm where neighbours pop by at any time to say hello, borrow a bike pump, or drink themselves silly any old night of the week. There’s Carys, the teacher, and good-looking Ian; Ashley, who keeps her apartment freezingly air-conditioned round the clock, and Chad, her amiable New Zealander husband; Sara, who, like Sarah, is Asian-American, and John. The couples form a close-knit group and their evenings are soon filled with poolside barbecues, Trivia Nights, dinners, drinks and more drinks. But is it time to put the brakes on the hedonism when Jason and Chad are arrested after a pub brawl? Why, with an unbelievably fantastic lifestyle, is Sarah starting to feel listless? Why does John keep taking solo trips and when will Sara’s brave front finally crack? Who’s that woman with Ian in the lift? And what secret is Carys keeping from her friends? Not a simplistic, straightforward novel of one-dimensional characters, Travails of a Trailing Spouse will strike a chord with anyone, expat or not, who has ever found life more complicated, puzzling, thrilling, frustrating – and, ultimately, deliciously rich – than could ever have been imagined.

Reading Travails of a Traveling Spouse was like sitting down for a good gossip with a girlfriend in Singapore. Many of the characters are familiar–whether because they resemble actual expats I’ve met, or fit the widely accepted stereotypes. It’s a breezy, enjoyable read. It is the antithesis of Crazy Rich Asians, which was a soapy take on the uber-rich of Singapore.

Chen captures, honestly and beautifully, the journey of becoming an expat when you transition from working woman to stay at home mom in a new country. The thrill of excitement and discovery, and then the alienation that comes with attempts to fit into a new role and a new country. Through Sarah and her friends (all of whom are having their own, different, experiences) you get a peek into a certain type of experience of expat life in Singapore. I say certain, because most expats never have a run-in with the law!

The characters are three dimensional, and unique in their voices. Sarah struggles with her role as a stay at home mom, her anxiety at dealing with a strange country’s legal process after her husband is arrested for fighting (even though he wasn’t the one who was fighting, but he was drunk at the time), her anger and the strain on her marriage that Jason’s arrest causes, and ultimately the ebb and flow of expat life as things and people change.

Chen drops in details, like that FDW’s (Helpers) are often acting as a second mother/aunty to your child while their own children grow up far away without their mothers, and that visits are rare. However, she does so deftly, without changing the tone of the book from fiction to non-fiction. I appreciated this little nuggets, as they serve to show that the ease of expat life often comes at the expense of others, or that Singapore is often bewildering to expatriates and why.

This is also the story of expats who aren’t white, and I’m so glad to see that representation.

However, there’s one element that is missing from the book, and it’s a bit of a damned if you do/damned if you don’t situation—Singaporeans. There are Singaporean police. There are background Singaporeans. But there are no Singaporean friends, and it’s noticeable. However, had she written in a character, it would be difficult to capture the Singaporean voice and the character would be a token character. But I think that this, too, isn’t an uncommon expat experience. I’ve talked before about the expat bubble, and Sarah and her friends live in it.

I think any expat would enjoy the book, but I think non-expats would also enjoy this book. However, you’ll have to get a physical copy–there are no e-book formats available, even the ones that are commonly used in Singapore, like Kobo.

Travails of a Trailing Spouse (Straits Times Press, 2018) debuted on the Straits Times Fiction Bestseller list at #2. It is available in the US from Amazon, and in Singapore from Kinokuniya, POPULAR, and Times. International orders can be made direct from the publisher, ST Press Books.

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