A New Translation of Tired Tropes

Review: The Secret Talker by Geling Yan

by Wynter K Miller

According to Geling Yan’s editor, The Secret Talker is “domestic suspense meets literary fiction.” The protagonist, Hongmei, is a Chinese woman living in California with her American husband, Glen. From the outside, she leads a charmed American life. She is middle class, highly educated, and far away from the humble village she wanted to leave behind. But on the inside, Hongmei is discontent — not miserable, necessarily, just listless. She has grown bored with her husband, her marriage has become shallow and unsatisfying, her motivation to finish her PhD is flagging. Now in her 40s, she is recognizing uncomfortable truths about herself — namely that it’s “hard to be faithful to a single person or profession.” And then Hongmei receives an email from a stranger. As she is lured into a series of intimate email exchanges, Hongmei gradually realizes that the man (or woman) in her inbox is also very much a person in her world. He (or she) knows where she lives, stalks her at the marketplace, compliments her clothing, notices her smallest facial expressions. And yet, Hongmei becomes entranced by the “secret talker,” her colorless life transformed into “a riveting tale of suspense.”

As I started writing this review, I found myself reaching for idioms and clichés. The plot? “A game of cat and mouse.” The protagonist’s motivation? “The grass is always greener.” The conclusion? “Nothing is as it seems.” Or maybe, “love is blind.”

The marketing team for The Secret Talker obviously targeted readers of genre fiction — and technically, it has all the trappings of a traditional thriller. There’s the whiff of danger (however much Hongmei’s olfactory organs appear impervious to the stench), the “mystery” of the stranger’s identity, the emphasis on plot over character, the “twist” at the end. Unfortunately, for careful readers (or frequent consumers of thrillers), the novel’s “reveal” will feel anticlimactic. In a cast of extremely limited characters, the secret talker’s identity is almost a foregone conclusion. Further, with 15 years worth of Hollywood films between this novel’s original release in 2005 and its U.S. debut, most of the suspense elements feel stale.

For those readers who pick up the novel less for the psychological suspense and more for the literary flavor promised by its blurbs, it’s worth acknowledging that Yan does invest in character-building more than most authors of commercial thrillers. Hongmei has a backstory and a handful of emotional traumas that make her vulnerability to the secret talker’s advances possible, if not wholly probable. That said (and much to the marketing team’s dismay, I’m sure), the closest comp I can give for The Secret Talker is Nicholas Sparks’ The Wedding, which has a surprisingly similar plot arc (and comparative narrative depth).

The Secret Talker is the first Chinese language book I’ve read in translation. In a mixed review written for The Asian Review of Books, Susan Blumberg-Kason, author of the memoir Good Chinese Wife, describes it as “a sort of expat novel in reverse: the expat and original intended audience are here Chinese, the foreign land is California.” Perhaps I was just the wrong audience for this novel?

Rating: 1 star

Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.