Putnam Books (Penguin), ARC pb, 260 p.
From the publisher:I love reading about people making their way in a different culture, of any nationality or culture, but I do have a special fondness for those stories involving Japanese characters. And How to Be an American Housewife was just as satisfying as I hoped it would be.
A lively and surprising novel about a Japanese woman with a closely guarded secret, the American daughter who strives to live up to her mother's standards, and the rejuvenating power of forgiveness.
How to Be an American Housewife is a novel about mothers and daughters, and the pull of tradition. It tells the story of Shoko, a Japanese woman who married an American GI, and her grown daughter, Sue, a divorced mother whose life as an American housewife hasn't been what she'd expected. When illness prevents Shoko from traveling to Japan, she asks Sue to go in her place. The trip reveals family secrets that change their lives in dramatic and unforeseen ways. Offering an entertaining glimpse into American and Japanese family lives and their potent aspirations, this is a warm and engaging novel full of unexpected insight.
The story starts off with Shoko, now an old woman, remembering her childhood in Japan and the chain of events that brought her to America as a war bride. Shoko is such a great character. The author did a wonderful job portraying her in a way that was completely believable, from her stubbornness and pride to her imperfect English. I could totally picture her as I read, and felt her struggle to become a proper American housewife. Margaret Dilloway was inspired to write this book by the experiences of her own Japanese mother who, like Shoko in the novel, married an American and started a new life in America, which no doubt helped to paint such a realistic portrait.
Once you leave Japan, it is extremely unlikely that you will return, unless your husband is stationed there again or becomes wealthy.Shoko longs to return to Japan for one last visit – she hasn’t been back since she left all those years before – and she especially wishes to reconcile with her brother who felt betrayed by her actions in the past, and wouldn’t accept her marriage. They haven't spoken or written since. However, she is too unwell to make the journey, so her daughter, Sue, and her granddaughter go in her place. The second part of the book is told from Sue’s perspective as they encounter long lost relatives and discover a country they’ve only heard stories about.
Take a few reminders of Japan with you, if you have room. Or make arrangements to write to a caring relative who is willing to send you letters or items from your homeland. This can ease homesickness.
And be sure to tell your family, “Sayonara.”
- How to Be an American Housewife (1955); from the chapter “Turning American”
Shoko is the central figure that all the others are connected to in one way or another, but it isn’t just her story. I thought that telling the story through the two voices worked quite well, and as much as I loved Shoko’s account of her life, I also enjoyed Sue’s version of the story. Together these two perspectives provide a fun insight into some of Japanese culture, first through Shoko’s Japanese eyes and then via Sue as she experiences Japan for the first time.
As a Canadian married to a Japanese man, currently living in Japan, I kind of feel like the opposite equivalent of a young Shoko as I try to balance my Western upbringing with the expectations of still patriarchal, conservative society. Wouldn’t it be fun if there were a kind of official gaijin guidebook to state clearly all the cultural differences one should be aware of? In How to Be an American Housewife, the excerpts from the fictional housekeeping guidebook of the same name, at the beginning of each chapter, were a nice touch. They were quite amusing, and at times rather sad.
When you marry and integrate with Americans, it is only natural not to have friends. Most American women will dislike you. Perhaps looking for other Japanese women will be possible, but probably not. Expect to be alone much of the time. Children will help relieve this melancholy.One small minor quibble, I did think that in the second part set in Japan, Sue and Helena were lucky to find so many people who spoke English so well. Especially Uncle Taro who so resented the Americans because of the war. I had a hard time imagining him studying English willingly and then being able to speak it so fluently. In my experience it’s pretty rare, even if someone has studied at university, unless they have spent time abroad, but I was willing to let it go for the sake of the story. And what do I know? Maybe the English education on Shikoku is just really great!
-from the chapter “Culture for Women”
Regardless, this was a perfectly delightful book. The comparisons have already been made but I’ll say it again, if you like Amy Tan, Lisa See, Jhumpa Lahiri, or well-written stories of family relationships and what happens when different cultures come together, I think you’ll like this book. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
P.S. Isn't it a gorgeous cover?
My Rating: 4/5
Buy How to Be an American Housewife at: Amazon.com | BookDepository.co.uk | BookDepository.com
For more information on the book and the inspiration behind it, visit Margaret Dilloway's website.
Thank you to the author, Margaret Dilloway, for giving me the opportunity to read this book.
Also reviewed by:
A Bookworm's World
At Home with Books
Diary of an Eccentric
Peeking Between the Pages
Redlady's Reading Room
Savvy Verse & Wit
The Literate Housewife Review
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