Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How to Be an American Housewife

After reading "How to be an American Housewife," the debut novel by Margaret Dilloway, I googled the title. I'm astonished that there is no movie in production right now. I predict, though, that you can look for it soon.

This book has everything Hollywood loves, and I don't mean that in a negative way at all. Just that it's the type of book that would translate to film well, and be loved by audiences. I could see mothers taking their teen daughters to it, or making it a tri-generational outing. It's an enjoyable read, too, but isn't so light that it floats away.

The story is told by two women. Shoko was born in Japan and came to American just after World War II. Her family realized that things were changing, that they needed to change with them, and that Shoko's best hope for success was to get a job where she could meet lots of nice American men, and marry one of them. She does just that, working in a hotel gift shot and going on dates at night. She obtains photos of the most promising men she meets, and her father chooses one of them for her.

Charlie turns out to be nice, and amenable to marriage, and they raise a family and have a relatively happy life together. But it hasn't come without costs to Shoko, and chief among those is her relationship with her younger brother, who hasn't spoken to her since the day she brought Charlie home. Now an old woman, Shoko wants nothing more than to return to Japan, for the first time since she left it, and make amends with her brother.

But she's too sick. Shoko lived 50 miles away from Nagasaki, and her heart was damaged by the radiation. So, she sends her daughter, Sue. Her granddaughter Helena accompanies Sue to meet the family they've only heard about, scarcely even seen in photographs, and to try to make amends on Shoko's behalf.

The story is structured by a neat narrative device: each chapter is framed by a quote from a book titled "How to be an American Housewife" that is written for women like Shoko. There are chapters with titles like "Becoming American" and "A Map to Husbands." I was crushed to learn that Dilloway wasn't quoting from a real book. In an afterword, she said she was inspired by a book her own Japanese mother had, titled "The American Way of Housekeeping." But it was written for maids working for Americans, and her mother didn't use it much, although she says that an internet search revealed some instances of other Japanese war brides using it to help them assimilate.

What I liked about it was the Japanese perspective on what it was like to be defeated, and live in Japan after the old order has broken apart. It's often said that history is written by the victor. It's easy to forget the other perspective. It's also hard to imagine what it must be like to leave behind everything that's familiar and try to become part of another culture forever. This book brings it to life. It's definitely worth a read!


Margaret said...

Wow, thank you for the wonderful review!

Library Diva said...

Thanks for stopping by! I'm always pleased and surprised when an author comes by here! And thanks for the great book! I'm looking forward to the next one.