Being an expat in Singapore myself, I was instantly drawn to Stephanie Suga Chen’s Travails of a Trailing Spouse. Without a decapitated corpse or brutalised domestic worker in sight, Stephanie’s book offers a fresh perspective on the lives of women (and occasionally men) who move to Singapore with their partners and find themselves willingly or unwillingly unemployed.
A Trailing Spouse is primarily about uncertainty. The lives Sarah, Sara and Carys lead are on the surface glamourous. Beneath the façade however, the women must face questions of fidelity, the possibility of losing everything they have and having to reinvent themselves in order to seize some form of control of the new lives they’ve found themselves thrust into.
Sarah makes an excellent protagonist. While intelligent and astute, she still stumbles over the same obstacles that other women do: how to find a job, how to accept that she is in fact a stay at home mother. Sarah is, unlike many of the women she knows, able to apply the skills and perspectives she used in her previous life to tackle the challenges she faces – such as her husband’s drinking. She reassures us that the reasons some trailing spouses do well and others fail are far more complex than the possession of an advanced education or caring husband. Sarah illustrates her experiences as an Asian-American in Asia as a mixed blessing, at times helpful but mostly her heritage offers her no advantage whatsoever.
Perhaps the novels strongest point is Stephanie Suga Chen’s ability to capture tiny yet relevant details of expat life in Singapore. She’s also able to resist the temptation to be condescending, as many authors who explore foreign cultures can be.
Yet the same attention to detail is also the book’s weakest point – while it was good piece of fiction, I couldn’t help feeling it would have made a fantastic memoir, in the tradition of Under the Tuscan Sun. A Training Spouse feels like real life (and not just because I’m an expat in Singapore) because of Chen’s ability to create a solid believable setting and bring her characters to life within it – perhaps too real and believable for such a light-hearted novel.
I recommend Travails of a Trailing Spouse to anyone with an interest in travel, culture and self-reinvention. Many women on the cusp of dramatic changes to their lives, especially later in life, will see themselves in this book.
Available here: Amazon
Author’s page: Facebook