Thursday, August 05, 2010

'How to Be an American Housewife' by Margaret Dilloway

Fiction, 2010
Putnam Books (Penguin), ARC pb, 260 p.
ISBN: 9780399156373
From the publisher:
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.
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.

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.
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 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.

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.
-from the chapter “Culture for Women”
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!

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: | |

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
bookgirl's nightstand
Diary of an Eccentric
Peeking Between the Pages
Planet Books
Redlady's Reading Room
Savvy Verse & Wit
The Literate Housewife Review
If I've missed yours, let me know and I'll link to it here.


The small print:  This book was received free of charge from the author for review purposes. Quotes are taken from an Uncorrected Proof copy and may have been changed before final publication. Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) or The Book Depository contain my Associates or Affiliates ID respectively.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. ooooh, that sounds really good! Looking forward to reading this, thanks :-)

  2. The cover is gorgeous I agree! And I'm glad that the book is good as well. The title somehow made me hesitant to read this review, but I'm glad I did because it's now added to my TBR pile.

    P.S. It would be nice if there were guidebooks like that for fitting into a particular country/culture.

  3. This book seems to be doing the rounds. Well, I think I would very much enjoy reading this. The cover is a beauty.

    But your manual on cultural differences, I fear you will be the one to write it! And why not?
    (I have great problems leaving comments, but it's bloggers fault, not yours)

  4. Janet - I think you'll like it. :)

    Iris - Well I'm glad you read the review too, despite the title. Lovely book, both cover and content.

    Leeswammes - I wasn't part of it but I saw that this book was recently on a TLC blog tour so there have been several reviews lately.

    Sorry you've been having trouble leaving comments. Blogger seems to be acting up lately. Have you tried using the Name/URL option? That might work better than the OpenID. Thanks for making the effort to leave a comment, despite the frustration though. I really appreciate it!


    Reading your review I think this book will fit snugly in my reading nook, don't you agree? :)

    Btw great tip to use the Name/URL option now that Blogger refuses OpenID; I have been using my Google account but don't really like to.

  6. i just recently read and reviewed this and enjoyed it as well. i can definitely agree with your comment about the convenience of the English speaking in Japan, particularly out in the rural areas that they visited. but, altogether, it was a lovely read.

  7. This does sound like a lovely novel, and the cover is gorgeous. Your review along with the author's guest post has instilled curiosity. I hope to read this one very soon.

  8. I too didn't realise the book would be about mixed marriage/heritage until I read your review:) Glad I did, it sounds very interesting. I think it's also timely as it seems that a generation of mixed children have come of age and are beginning to explore their identities.

  9. I've just read and reviewed the paperback of this novel which came out in August, and was interested to hear your thoughts. Interesting about Uncle Taro and his excellent English. I guess his knowing English helped the story along but it would have been interesting too if Sue had had to communicate with him slowly with her part-Japanese and his part-English.


Thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I love hearing from you and I read every single one!

P.S. In an effort to eliminate spam, I moderate all comments, so there will most likely be a delay between when you submit the comment and when it appears on the post. Please let me know if you have any trouble leaving comments here, and you can also chat with me on Twitter, if you prefer. Happy Reading!