Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How To Be An American Housewife


It's odd to read two books in a row that feature How To pamphlets and assimilation. This may be the only time in my life when that happens, don't you think? The first book was the disappointing Mr Rosenblum Dreams In English and the second was  How To Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway. Second time's the charm apparently since Housewife was heavenly.

Housewife is the story of a young Japanese bride who comes to America with her GI husband. Shoko comes of age during WWII and because of that, the atom bombs, her culture and her family's finances she must forgo her ambitions of a college education in favor of helping to put her brother Taro through school. At the suggestion of her Father, Shoko marries an American Naval officer. As a result of the marriage Shoko not only loses her homeland but her brother as well. Taro's bitter prejudices will not allow them to stay in contact. There is some happiness in Shoko's and Charlie's marriage but there are troubles for Shoko. She must face racism and loneliness. These are not things that the bible of her life, the pamphlet Charlie gave her, How To Be An American Housewife, can resolve for her.

Decades later, Shoko is done raising her children and has decided to return to Japan for a visit. She would like to try to reconnect with the brother she hasn't had any contact with in 40 years. Serious illness prevents her from going but she is able to convince her daughter Suiko – or Sue-- to go in her place. Sue's own experience as an American housewife has not been successful. She is divorced and raising her daughter Helena alone. Helena is the only positive touch point between the two women. Sue's own experiences with racism and loneliness (A military family, they moved every few years.) and her resentment of her Mother's treatment of her verses her brother have left her disgruntled and cynical.

The novel has two narrators: Shoko and Sue. Shoko's voice and story is the dominate one and also the more interesting of the two. Her chapters all begin with advice from the How To pamphlet. Some of the advice is funny and some horrifyingly depressing in it's straightforward honesty about the prejudices the wives can expect and have to accept. Even with all her hardships and loss, Shoko's life comes across as exotic. Sue's story is harder to soften towards because it is contemporary and not as uncommon. However both women are carefully drawn and fully realized characters--as are the other characters in the book.

Dilloway is a first time novelist and has used her own Mother's life as a starting point for How To Be An American Housewife. Her creation of such strong, individual voices is impressive. As is her ability to take the story back and forth and time and from narrator to narrator without losing any momentum in the storyline. This book was captivating.

There are a few similarities between Housewife and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. You can see that from just reading this small review with abreviated plot information. Mothers and daughters, Asia and America, daughters fulfulling their Mothers destiny, etc. Do not think that Housewife is even remotely a copy of Joy. The two books have many differences. House did make me want to re-read Joy which I have not read since it's initial publication so that's another good thing about Housewife.

And. Talk about a great reading group choice? Racism, mothers and daughters, assimilation, war, forgiveness, Japanese culture, American culture, marriage, biracial children---if I go on I'll be exhausted. Buy it, read it then discuss.


P.S. The cover? Gorgeous and so similar to some other novels from the same publisher, Penguin, that I have adored recently: The Piano Teacher and Girl In Translation. The turned away or cut off head is popular on covers. It creates an identity but doesn't identify.

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