Book Review: Paper Wife by Laila Ibrahim

I decided to take a break from the Freedman/Johnson series by the author and read something else by her in my journey of going through her work and Paper Wife was my choice.

‘Paper Wife’ follows Mei Ling a young Chinese girl in the 1920s who by chance becomes a paper wife to an unknown widower based in California, USA. At a young age of 17, she has to pretend to become the wife and mother she is not to enable her to pass the gruesome American immigration tests and join her new husband. Mei Ling meets a little girl Siew, on the ship as they journey to America and forms a close bond with her. On her arrival, she quickly discovers that the life she expected is not her reality and she has to grow up fast and adjust to this life in a country where she doesn’t speak the language and a husband she barely knows. She is also haunted by her promise to find Siew after she settles into American life, so she sets out in search for her and what she discovers takes her on another difficult path to bring Siew to safety. This is a story about immigration, arranged marriages, courage, love and new beginnings.

I enjoyed reading this book especially with all the history and new knowledge that came with it. This author’s writing draws you into the story and holds you until you get to the end with very memorable characters that stay in your mind for a long time. I loved Mei Ling’s strength and courage even when she was afraid and her compassionate heart as she took Siew, as her own from the first time she met her. However, I didn’t like how the story deteriorated towards the end as Mei Ling’s character seemed to change due to pressure and desperation. I also didn’t quite get the purpose of the ghost in the story that haunted her. I would have preferred a better end to the story which was actually a happy one for the main characters but tainted Mei Ling’s character for me. Perhaps, there is something in the culture or in the times that I don’t really understand, and I am open to research further by reading more books based on Chinese culture or their immigration stories.

I will still highly recommend this book despite my disappointment on how the story developed because it is definitely one that will stay in my memory for a long while.

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Published: October 30, 2018, by Lake Union Publishing

Pages: 273

Genre: Historical Fiction

The Author:

Laila Ibrahim grew up in Whittier, California on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, and moved to Oakland, California to attend Mills College where she studied Psychology and Child Development. After getting a Master’s Degree in Human Development, she realized she wanted to do more hands on work with children, and opened up her own preschool: Woolsey Children’s School. Her education coupled with her experience as a teacher and parent provide ample fodder for her writing – especially her interest in Attachment Theory and multiculturalism.

She identifies as a devout Unitarian Universalist – which is sort of like being a radical moderate – and worked as the Director of Children and Family Ministries at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland for five years.  She lives in a small co-housing community in Berkeley with her wife, Rinda, a public school administrator. She the proud mother of wonderful young adult daughters.

Laila self-published Yellow Crocus in 2011 after agents repeatedly told her that no one would want to read a story about the love between an enslaved black woman and her privileged white charge. Over the years the readers have proven them wrong.  She became a full-time writer in 2015.

Living Right, her second novel,  is set in 2004, but with a similar theme: loving across difference.  It goes beyond the headline to reveal the life and death stakes when a devoted mother struggles to reconcile her evangelical Christian beliefs with her son’s sexual orientation. 

Mustard Seed continues with the lives of the Freedman and Johnson families after the Civil War.

Paper Wife tells the story of Mei Ling, a young woman forced by social upheaval to marry a stranger and immigrate from Southern China through Angel Island to San Francisco in 1923. 

Golden Poppies continues the story of Mattie and Lisbeth’s families in the 1890’s.

Scarlet Carnation continues with Mattie and Lisbeth’s granddaughters as the point of view characters in Oakland California between 1911 and 1915.

Laila  loves calling, Zooming or FaceTiming into bookclubs and public speaking.  She can be contacted at

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