Monday, January 2, 2012
Title: How to Be an American Housewife
Author: Margaret Dilloway
Publication Date: August 2010 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Putnam Adult (Penguin Group)
Source: ARC won from a blog giveaway
How to Be an American Housewife was one of the final books that I read in 2011 and also one of my favorites. It is the story of Shoko, a Japanese woman who marries an American soldier after World War II, and her daughter, Sue, who is raising her daughter as a single mom. The book explores their memories, their relationship, and the bonds of family as Shoko's heart condition prevents her from traveling to Japan to reconcile with her brother.
Books involving memories, traveling between the present and the past, are delicate things to write. If not done well, they can be very confusing or jarring for the reader as the transition takes place. Dilloway handled this potential pitfall wonderfully in How to Be an American Housewife, capturing just how something from the present can catapult one into memories of the past or another instance can bring one out of those memories. Shoko's memories of Japan are powerful as she experienced so much during World War II and in the aftermath. Her experiences are those of an individual but also of a proud nation trying to find its way in a new world order. The traditional roles that define men and women and the rigid structure of society are examined in the way that they provide a solid framework for expectation and action but also prevent individuals and society from moving forward and transitioning into a more global society. Shoko brings these expectations with her to America, although she attempts to convert them from the Japanese expectations to the American ones. Her life remains ordered and structured even though she has entered a new society with different rules.
Sue grows up learning little about her Japanese heritage but fully understanding that her mother is very different than American mothers. The house runs on routines and rules even if they are American rules in her mother's eyes. With parents who have high expectations and strict rules, Sue naturally rebels and relationships are strained further as she marries young, has a daughter, and gets a divorce. Without a solid family foundation to ground her, Sue floats through life barely making ends meet and giving up on the dreams she once had.
Shoko's illness brings together her memories of Japan with her desire to reconnect with her brother. She is not strong enough to travel to Japan herself so she asks Sue to go in her place. While she fears her brother's reaction to the unexpected visit by relatives he has never met, she desires that Sue see where she comes from and learn about her family heritage. Sue and her daughter undertake the journey and come home with a larger sense of self and family. Shoko's brother, Taro, does not tell the story that Shoko fears he will but instead leaves that for her to share if she wishes. While the reunion is rocky, Taro does eventually come to terms with his rejection of Shoko when she married an American and develops a relationship with his American family.
How to Be an American Housewife captured me from the very first sentence and I just wanted to keep reading. The language used by Dilloway in Shoko's memories and to describe Japan is beautiful. She has a keen understanding of the culture through her mother and this shines through in the essential elements of the story. All of the characters have depth and each memory is constructed for a specific purpose in the story. There is no extra padding here but only words to fill the soul with an understanding of the importance of family.
It is very rare that I give a book a 5 star rating but How to Be an American Housewife definitely deserves one.
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