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October 5, 2019

Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim ~ a Review

by Donna Huber



I don't usually write full reviews of books that I pick up for myself; I just include a short review in my monthly recap. But every once in a while I get a book that is just so great that I have to shine a little more light on it. So it was with the audiobook I listened to at the end of September. Paper Wife was so interesting and touching that I want to be sure my readers don't miss this wonderful novel.

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October 2018; Lake Union; 978-1503904576
audio, ebook, print (297 pages); historical fiction
I listen to several audiobooks each month. I don't have a paid subscription to any of the audiobook services so I have to make do with what I find at my digital library or through Amazon Prime's free ebook with Audible narration program. I don't know if it is the limited selection or the format, but many of the audiobooks I listen to are okay to good. Seldom do I find a great one. When I do find a great one I want to be sure everyone hears about it. So it is with Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim. I found this one through Amazon Prime's free ebook with Audible narration program.

I loved this book so much I named it my favorite read in September.

Paper Wife is set in 1920s California and focuses on the life of a Chinese family. I knew enough from reading books set in the west in the 1920s to know that the Chinese immigrants were not treated well. They were treated as Americans had treated all minority groups up to that time - with disdain. To white Americans, the Chinese were ignorant and a source of cheap labor. Because life in China had become largely unbearable with the rise of communism, the hope for many was to send family members to America where they could earn money to send home.

Before reading Paper Wife, I knew little about Chinese immigration policy. I didn't even know about Angel Island (similar to Ellis Island in New York). And after reading this book, I'm sad that I didn't know about it when I took my trip to San Francisco. It would have been an interesting piece of history to visit.

The plot of the book is focused on the life of Mei Ling and Kai Li. Kai Li's first wife has died, leaving him with a son he has never met. (At this point, it was typical for the man to go to the U.S. to work and leave his wife in China. But travel was becoming difficult and soon it would be impossible to bring his family to the U.S. and possibly if he left the U.S. he would not be allowed re-entry). Due to the changes in the immigration policy, Chinese individuals were no longer being allowed to come to the U.S. unless they had family there. So a deceptive practice of "paper" family was established in China.

For Mei Ling, though, she wasn't only deceiving the U.S. government, but also Kai Li. Originally Kai Li had been matched with Mei Ling's sister. But when she becomes too ill to travel, Mei Ling takes her place. However, Kai Li has secrets of his own.

We hear a lot about immigration policy every day. Sometimes it seems that the problems we are facing are recent, but in truth, immigration has been a problematic issue for decades. And in Paper Wife, we see how these policies affect individuals.

We are provided a good overview of the political climate of both China and U.S. in the 1920s. I was unaware of a lot of the history provided and was thankful for the time spent giving this information to readers. It was also provided in a way that felt natural and not just as an info dump. It did make the beginning a little slow, but without this background information, the story would not have been as poignant.

As I followed Mei Ling through her often strange and confusing journey, I sympathized with her. I was outraged on her behalf and I rooted for her at every turn. At work, we have many internationals who come to work or study and each time I help them with paperwork I'm so grateful that I was born here. Reading Paper Wife made me more grateful, but also greatly sadden me as to the struggles others faced to ensure a better life for themselves here as well as for the family they left behind.

There are a lot of books out there and a lot of history lessons focus on the struggles of African-Americans and Native Americans, and even to some extent German-Americans and Irish-Americans, but I think little attention has been given to Chinese-Americans. Perhaps if I grew up on the west coast instead of the east coast, there would have been more emphasis on the Chinese.

I'm glad I stumbled upon Laila Ibrahim's Paper Wife. My life feels richer for having read it - not only for the beautiful writing and touching story but for opening my eyes to a part of history and culture and making it come to life. It is one of the few times that I didn't want a book to end.

Buy Paper Wife at Amazon

Donna Huber is an avid reader and natural encourager. She is the founder of Girl Who Reads and the author of how-to marketing book Secrets to a Successful Blog Tour.

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