How to Be an American Housewife

Monday, September 20, 2010

Title: How to Be an American Housewife
Author: Margaret Dilloway
Pages: 274
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons (Penguin)
Release Date: August 5, 2010

I wanted to read this book ever since I saw that it was an upcoming TLC book tours book but was too late to make it for the tour. I eagerly read everyone else's reviews and saw how wonderful everyone thought this book was and knew that I had to read it. Especially after reading the reviews by Meg at Write Meg! and my good friend, Jennifer at Crazy-For-Books. I had other reading commitments, though, so I wasn't able to read it the second it came out like I wanted to. At this point it's only been out a month and I felt like I had to wait an eternity to read it!

One of the reasons I wanted to read this book so badly was because of how personal it sounded to me. How to Be an American Housewife tells the story of a Japanese mother, Shoko, and her half-Japanese/half-American daughter, Sue. Though it's mainly a story about Shoko's past and her potentially last wishes, as she is ill, it's also a story about a mother and a daughter, their differences, and the difficulties they experience from experiencing two different cultures. There were a lot of similarities in this book to myself and my mother. In the story, Shoko marries an American GI partly to move to the United States for a better life. She has a daughter, Sue, who she has trouble understanding because of her American ways and vice versa. My mother is Korean and she married my father who was in the Air Force (though they married for love). We've certainly experienced differences and misunderstandings throughout the years due to the cultural differences of having grown up in Korea (for her) and in the states (for me). On top of that, my husband's mother is from Thailand, and she married an American Air Force man then moved to the states and had two sons (the second one being my husband). While my mother and my mother-in-law are two extremely different people, if you combine their experiences, you would find something close to Shoko's in this book.

I really enjoyed reading about the smallest nuances that I could relate to. I'm sure I can only think of a few right now; things like it being rude to stick your chopsticks straight up and down in your rice... that was something I learned a long time ago but it never made sense to me -- I mean it's so convenient! There were lots of those kinds of moments throughout the book when I could laugh in appreciation of the nuance. Sue mentioned a few times in the book how she wasn't close with any relatives and all they had was their immediate family -- again, same here. Oh other things like always taking your shoes off in the house, cleaning the floors not with a mop but on your hands and knees with a rag, etc. I even have vague memories of the short time we lived in Korea when my dad was stationed there when my sister and I were young and I pictured my grandparents' home in the scenes when Sue returns to Japan -- the wooden framed doors with the rice paper screens, etc. Oh, there's a scene where Sue's daughter is interacting with some students in Japan and they are all touching her hair and it reminded me of when I was little and we visited a school in Korea; the kids there were fascinated by my half-American features, and I distinctly remember them rubbing my cheeks and my hair.... it freaked me out! But it made me laugh to remember this during that scene. In another scene she talked about playing the Japanese game "Jan Ken Poi" which is what we know as "Rock Paper Scissors"... That was funny to me because before I ever knew that game with the English title, I knew it as "Gai Bai Boe" which is the Korean version. And that was with me growing up in the states! In fact, here's the part where she talks about this:
One of my favorite Japanese games was rock-paper-scissors, or, as Mom had taught me, Jan Ken Poi. "In Japan, use this for everything, even businessmen," Mom had told me.
Jan Ken Poi became a special game, done to break ties and decide between an eight o'clock and an eight-thirty bedtime. (pg. 177)
I love how I was able to relate to the significance of such a "game". It was all these little things that I really appreciated in this book.

On the flip side, looking at things from Shoko's perspective made me incredibly sad -- I can't imagine the things she experienced in Japan and then trying to assimilate in a country where being different wasn't appreciated. This is also another one of those stories where you realize, again, that your parents truly had other lives before you were born and that there is this entire history we aren't always completely aware of. In How to Be an American Housewife, Shoko asks her daughter, Sue, to return to Japan in her place to reunite her with her brother, Taro, with whom she has had an estranged relationship for over 30 years. In doing so, Sue embarks on a journey not only geographically but also in her relationship with her mother as well.

Each chapter of the book starts from a quote from a fictional non-fiction book based on an actual non-fiction book basically about how to be a housewife (redundant, eh?) These quotes were all interesting because they gave insight into the thought process behind the way to assimilate into American culture... some may be surprised at the things they say, but I don't think there was one quote that I didn't understand on a somewhat personal level.

So in all, I definitely enjoyed this book. It was a fast, engaging read. The only thing I would have probably liked better was if the focus had been more on Sue (but only because I could relate better) and the relationship. Instead it was pretty much more focused on Shoko's past, her brother, and Sue's quest to help her mother which ultimately has a significant effect on her own life. Definitely a must read!


Tina said...

Excellent Review Jenny!! I just rec. this one and started it yesterday, I really like it but having a hard time relating to the culture stuff.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I've got this one on my wish list -- can't wait to read!

Trisha said...

Having a personal connection with a good book always makes it just that much better.

Bonnie said...

Hi Jenny, I have never heard of this book but after your review I really have to search it out. I am part Japanese myself and some of my family emigrated to Hawaii to work on the plantations. We used to play jan ken poi too and have you ever played a card game called hanafuda? I spent a summer in Japan once and had a very memorable experience.


Zibilee said...

Oh, isn't it great when a book speaks to you so personally? I love your reactions to this book and think that it is so very cool that you were able to really connect with the characters and the story. I am going to have to read this book. Though I would probably like it for very different reasons than you did, I don't want to pass it up! Thanks for the very enthusiastic and well written review!

Juju at Tales of said...

Awesome review. I adore when a book touches me personally :)

PS I had no idea about the chopsticks.

bermudaonion said...

I won this book and I can't wait to read it!!

Jenny said...

Tina -- yeah, I could see that. I'm sure it would have been such a different experience (but def. still good) if I couldn't personally relate. Hope you still like it!

Coffee and a Book Chick -- def. read this one! It's a quick read too.

Trisha -- definitely!

Bonnie -- I definitely think you would like this book then! I've never played that game, but it sounds sort of like "Hand and Foot" which I HAVE played, hehe.

Heather - Thanks! Yes, definitely liking it for different reasons, but I still think it's a book that everyone will enjoy!

Juju -- Isn't that funny? LOL! I've gotten "the look" a couple times when I had my chopsticks sticking straight up in the rice, hahahah!

Kathy -- I really think you'll like it!

Meg said...

It's an awesome, rare day indeed when we find a book we relate to on such a personal level -- and it sounds like this was definitely that sort of read for you! So glad you enjoyed this one, too; it's definitely one of my favorite reads this year. I haven't stopped recommending it since I finished! And thanks for linking to my review, too!

Michelle (Red Headed Book Child) said...

Very thoughtful review, Jenny. Relating to the story in a novel can be a wonderful and emotional thing. I'm glad this one touched you. It sounds fascinating.

Jennifer (Crazy-for-Books) said...

I love books that connect with you on a deeper level! I'm so glad you loved it even more than I did! :) Very awesome review! ;)

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