Margaret Dilloway's debut novel is a mother-daughter story, an immigrant story, and an inspired-by-a-true-story story. The true story is her own mother's. Suiko OBrien left Japan after World War II as the bride of an American soldier, gave birth to a daughter relatively late in life, and suffered from an enlarged heart; Dilloway makes all of these facts part of Shoko Morgan's biography as well. Suiko brought a book with her from Japan--titled The American Way of Housekeeping, written in both English and Japanese by the Women of the Occupation in Japan--it was meant to help eliminate the communication barrier between American housewives and their Japanese maids; not realizing this and thinking it was meant for housewives themselves, Suiko's new husband gave the book to her. Fictionalizing and reshaping the book according to her father's misunderstanding--turning it into an instruction book called How to Be an American Housewife--Dilloway gives this to Shoko as well, using it as a framing device for the novel.
Excerpts from this manual open each chapter of the novel, and they were my favorite parts of the book. Some foreshadow the portion of the story thats about to follow and others are less clearly related to the action, but they were all fascinating little bits of cultural insight. While they often made comparisons between Japanese and American ways in an effort to be instructive, the overall feel of those pieces portrays idealized mid-century, middle-class American domesticity. How to be an AMERICAN housewife, indeed--no matter where you're from. Even America.
Shoko tells her own story for the first two-thirds of the book, sometimes-shaky English and all, and I was immediately drawn into it. When her declining health imperils her long-held secret plan to return to Japan and make peace with her brother after decades of not contacting each other, Shoko is forced to enlist her daughter Sue (Suiko) to go in her place. Sue has never been to Japan and knows little of her extended family, but is swayed to accept the errand by her own daughter Helena's enthusiasm for the idea. Sue takes over the telling once she and Helena begin preparing for their trip. Dilloway makes the transition between her two first-person narrators smoothly, while establishing each with a distinctive voice.
The fact that I was caught up in the story so quickly is a compliment to Dilloway's writing, because it took me a while to warm up to Shoko on her own, and I didn'tt really feel that I liked the book until past the halfway point. I found myself more interested in the mother-daughter story between Sue and Helena than that of Shoko and Sue, so I might have preferred a different balance. Having said that, I think this is a strong first novel and a solid piece of women's fiction; the male characters aren't developed as well as the female ones, but even if they were, the subject's not likely to attract male readers anyway. I'm interested in seeing what Dilloway might do with a less autobiographical story, though...and I think theres some real potential for social commentary in this whole "how to be an American housewife" thing.