Girl In Translation: Book Review



Coming from a Dutch family, we have taken pride in our heritage and always celebrate the successes of the Netherlands. One instance is the renowned author Jean Kwok, a Dutch-Chinese author who was born in Hong Kong and rose from a life of poverty to a life of success through her grit and academic talents. I came across her novel Girl in Translation as controversy spread over the mature topics discussed in the book. I decided to read the book for myself to determine my honest opinion on the story.

The task of actually reading the book was a short one—taking only three days. I simply could not put it down; Kwok’s fast-paced yet vivid style had me hooked.

Summary: (If you plan on reading the novel, feel free to skip or skim this section)

The novel begins with Kimberly, a young girl who just moved from Hong Kong to America with her mother. In a run-down, roach-infested apartment, Kimberly and Ma (her mother) meet their new home until Kimberly graduates. Her Aunt Paula had given them the opportunity to live in the States and work for her factory in Chinatown… at the price of being constantly belittled, underpaid, and tied to years of debt.

Although she had been the top of her class in Hong Kong, Kimberly struggles in her first (public) school to speak and comprehend the English language. Despite being under the constant nag of her rude teacher Mr. Bogart, Kimberly’s excellence in STEM classes allows her to continue. Here she meets her lifetime best friend, Annette, a wealthy, kind companion Kimberly always has. Receiving a scholarship to Harrison Prep, a top private school in New York City, Kimberly moves schools with Annette. Throughout her time at schooling, she works long hours at the factory with her mother to repay their debt. At the factory, she maintains her close relationship with Matt, a handsome boy working with his family like Kimberly.

Through many conflicts of being at a new school, Kimberly maintains her integrity and continues. For the most part, Kimberly lacks a social life due to her commitment to work and school. However, nearing the end of the book, Kimberly does weed, has sex with Matt, and becomes pregnant. Her work in high school pays off when she receives her acceptance to Yale University, a vital step in her goal to bring her and Ma out of their impoverished life. On the other hand, everything quickly spirals when Kimberly discovers she is pregnant. Despite considerations of abortion, she rules against it and raises her son Jason with Ma’s help as she attends Yale. The book concludes with their family—Ma, Kimberly, and Jason—in their nice house in West Chester, as Kimberly reflects on the course of her life.


The book effectively wraps the reader through its continuously moving plot and valuable insight. As the reader, I found myself rooting for Kimberly in all her conflicts. By maintaining the first perspective, the book adapts a diary-like style where the reader experiences everything through the lens of Kimberly.

Kwok, an immigrant once in a similar spot, effectively reflects the untold stories of struggling immigrants as they adjust to the American culture. Her heavy past shines between the lines and puts the readers into the shoes of an American immigrant. Although the plot was slightly predictable, the pace and emotion within the novel engages the audience.

The book ended with a heavy conclusion. On page 240, Kimberly does weed at the only party she attends through her high school career. On page 259, Kimberly has sex with Matt and starts a relationship with him. Soon after, Kimberly is accepted to attend Yale University. She debates the concept of an abortion but decides against it when she sees her baby in the ultrasound. However, she sacrifices her life with Matt to attend Yale, a heartbreaking decision for both her and the reader. She raises her child away from Matt and with Ma.

I found this end to be saddening and thought-provoking. As a contradiction to the relatively predictable plot previously carrying the book, the ending provided an unexpected, heavy component. In this way, I believe the book truly reflects life: maybe sometimes easy-going and entertaining, but quickly able to fall in ruins to be rebuilt. Kimberly represents resilience, adjusting to a new country, new schools, and an entire new lifestyle throughout.

Girl in Translation looks at a young girl who is thrown into American culture and has to make adjustments throughout the way. Reading this book made me far more aware of my own privileges and allowed me to truly appreciate the work immigrants like my father put in to make a life in America. For anyone looking for a compelling young adult novel, I highly recommend Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok.