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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

How to be an American Housewife
Margaret Dilloway
Putnam, 2010

Shoko is an old woman now but she remembers when she was so young and pretty that men would turn to look at her when she walked down the street. But that was long ago in Japan, before she married an American serviceman and moved to America. Now her heart is failing, probably due to radiation exposure during the Second World War, and she wants more than anything to go see her brother and make things right again. She and her brother have not spoken ever since she married and left Japan, so many years ago.

Shoko and Taro’s parents encouraged Shoko to find an American to marry so she could escape occupied Japan and have a better life. Shoko had many boyfriends, so she brought their pictures to her father and he selected the one she should choose. Taro never forgave Shoko for betraying her country and her family by leaving, and once she got to America, Shoko sometimes believed she had made a terrible mistake. She never could learn the language or the customs, despite the guidance of a book called How to be an American Housewife. She never felt like she fit in, like she was always the outsider. American customs and people were so strange.

But Shoko has an idea. She wants her daughter Sue to go to Japan in her place and try to convince Taro to forgive her. She has saved bits of money over the years to fund such a trip, and to her surprise, Sue agrees to go! She gives Sue a letter to give to her brother, and then it’s Sue’s turn to take over the narrative. Sue’s daughter accompanies her, and they learn many things about their heritage and family history, and this serves to make Sue prouder of her ancestry instead of ashamed of it.

Despite having some early issues with the alternating narratives, I quickly became interested in Shoko’s story. She seems like a cranky old woman now, but after reading about her move to America and the difficulty she had assimilating, I understand that her life was not what she imagined it would be. People were not always nice to Shoko, or her children, but she did the best she could in spite of the cultural and language difficulties. Short chapters may have increased the pace of the book, but I found them to be disruptive to the narratives of Shoko and Sue, and there was no need to build suspense in this type of literary fiction. Some reviewers have remarked about the quick wrap-up ending, but I found it comforting and satisfying even if it was a bit quick and anticlimactic. I am looking forward to more books by this author.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)
Set in the ethnic neighborhoods of Seattle during World War II and Japanese American internment camps of the era, this debut novel tells the heartwarming story of widower Henry Lee, his father, and his first love Keiko Okabe.

The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng (2008)
In 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton-the half-Chinese, half-English youngest child of the head of one of Penang's great trading families feels alienated from both the Chinese and British communities. He at last discovers a sense of belonging in his unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip proudly shows his new friend around his adored island, and in return Endo teaches him about Japanese language and culture and trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. When the Japanese savagely invade Malaya, Philip realizes that his mentor and sensei-to whom he owes absolute loyalty-is a Japanese spy. Young Philip has been an unwitting traitor, and must now work in secret to save as many lives as possible, even as his own family is brought to its knees.

Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham (1995)
This epic tale of an American family follows three generations of the Stassos clan as it is transformed by ambition, love, and history. Constantine Stassos, a Greek immigrant, marries Mary Cuccio, an Italian-American girl, and they have three children, each fated to a complex life. Susan is oppressed by her beauty and her father's affections; Billy is brilliant, and gay; Zoe is a wild, heedless visionary. As the years pass, their lives unfold in ways that compel them--and their parents--to meet ever greater challenges.

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