Book review: ‘How To Be An American Housewife’ by Margaret Dilloway

I started Margaret Dilloway’s How To Be An American Housewife just before bed last week, distracted by my busy day and unable to calm my worried mind enough to sleep. From the opening sentence, I was surprised at how quickly I sunk into this beautiful, lyrical story — and how enchanted with Dilloway’s world I became. I didn’t put the book down again until 2 a.m. — and only when my eyes were literally shutting.

In this novel centering around identity, growth, healing and motherhood, our protagonists are Shoko and Suiko, or “Sue.” The Japanese wife of a former American GI, Shoko has become American through assimilation. She chose to marry Charlie, a shy redheaded military man, and left her native Japan after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima left her culture, land and family devastated. Sue is Shoko and Charlie’s divorced American daughter, a lovely woman with a 12-year-old daughter, Helena, who understands her mother little and their Japanese heritage even less.

Now aging and facing serious surgery, Shoko is looking back at the life she left in the Japanese countryside — and the family that disowned her when she married an American. Taro, Shoko’s brother, was particularly venomous and couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see the way out Shoko was forced to take. After her father chose her future husband out of a photo line-up of American suitors, Shoko said goodbye to her native country . . . and hello to a world even more foreign than the frightening one she abandoned. But toward the end of her life, did Shoko make the right choices? Could she have changed things for herself, for Charlie, for their son Mike — or for Sue?

From the novel’s first words to its rapid conclusion, I was enchanted with everything about Dilloway’s story. In the cover blurb, author Jamie Ford calls the story “tender and captivating” — a description I second whole-heartedly. I can think of little I disliked about Housewife, except that — for me — it ended far too soon.

Alternating between Shoko’s memories of her early life and teenage years across the Pacific and the present in California, Dilloway seamlessly moves us from time to the next. Shoko herself tells us her story, providing background and details in flawless language. We know that Shoko has faced discrimination in forms: especially after she arrived in the U.S. We know, too, that her English language skills are limited and her accent hard to understand. But as a narrator, Shoko is intelligent, witty, deft; she’s wonderful. The details Dilloway shares strike the impeccably perfect balance between telling and showing.

For as much as I loved Shoko, I had a harder time connecting with Sue — but I think that’s deliberate. Sue grows up in the face of her parents’ interracial relationship, making her their beloved and biracial daughter. Dilloway doesn’t dwell on Sue’s mixed ancestry, choosing instead to show the ways in which she could have advanced in life but hung back. Sue is not a “perfect” mother to Helena, just as Shoko was not a perfect mother to Sue. The women all clearly love one another, but it’s a faceted and imperfect love. But maybe that’s the most beautiful.

Oh, there’s so much to discuss in this fabulous book: the nature of Charlie and Shoko’s marriage; Mike’s difficulties and the nature of his reticence; the Japanese caste system that forced Shoko to shy away from a man she once loved; the effects of the atomic bombs on Japanese society, and the way the war changed everything. But I don’t want to give away the story or overshare, because I went into this novel mostly blind — and I loved that. What appealed to me most, from reading a description on Goodreads, was the cover. I’m obsessed with cherry blossoms — or sakura — and usually savor stories of immigrants and foreign cultures.

This novel was exquisite — one of the finest I’ve read this year — and I highly, highly recommend it to lovers of literary fiction, historical fiction and plain ol’ fine storytelling. If it’s any further proof of my love, too, I completed Housewife on a long lunch break from work. I desperately wanted to finish it just as much as I didn’t want it to end. I wound up returning late to my desk, shame-faced and tearful, after the conclusion of an exquisite story — and I was thrilled (thrilled!) with the ending though, after everything, it felt a bit hurried to me. Anything I allow to purposely make me late, busy worker-bee that I am, has earned my devotion.

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 0399156372 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy won in Goodreads’ First Reads program


22 thoughts on “Book review: ‘How To Be An American Housewife’ by Margaret Dilloway

  1. You know this reminds me of some of Amy Tan’s work and i love Amy Tan (Kitchen God’s Wife=one of my all time faves) Of course, this deals with Japanese culture, so it will be different. I will have to check this book out after reading your lovely review.

  2. Ahhh, I’ve heard nothing but great things about this and can’t wait to read it!!! You are the second person who has said it was one of the best this year. I think the part I’m curious about from your review and almost disappointed in is the portrayal of the character, Sue… I’m assuming that is who I would relate to in the book since I’m the biracial child of an interracial marriage from a man in the air force who married a woman in Korea, and being biracial and having parents of such differing cultures has had a SIGNIFICANT impact good and bad on who I am. So I would hate if that was downplayed, but otherwise sounds so good. I’ll have to get this one right away!

    • Hi Jenny! No worries: I wouldn’t say Sue’s struggles with identity were downplayed, just not the sole focal point of who she was characterized to be — which I thought was a good thing. Sue was so much more than the daughter of an American man and a Japanese woman, and a very interesting person to read about! Definitely grab it!

  3. thanks for the rec! this sounds like a fantastic book. i’m going to have to get my hands on this one after reading your review. i love books that make me want to try to finish it asap, but at the same time want to savor every last word.

  4. I love when I find a book that totally engrosses me. Lately I’ve been stressed by real-life stuff and find my mind wanders quite a bit while reading. I need to get my hands on this book, I think!

  5. This one sounds so multi-layered and worthwhile. I hope I can get my hands on it soon. Darn me for trying not to buy or it’d be mine TODAY.

  6. I think your love for this one is a little stronger than mine, but your enthusiasm has totally rubbed off on me. I think I like it more now than I did! I’ll be reviewing it soon too.

  7. Oh wow, this is the kind of book that would grab me from the bookstore because of that beautiful cover but the fact that you loved it from the get go? Can’t wait to get a copy for myself!

  8. Thank you for the great review- this one sounds very interesting, I added it to my insanely long ‘to be read’ list 🙂

  9. Well, this definitely sounds like a must read. When I get around to read it, we should chat about it. I love writing reviews but sometimes, I really just want to hash out the book in detail and reviews aren’t good for doing that because you don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t already read it. Great review. And I’m glad that you enjoyed this book so much.

  10. I’ve been following your tweets of joy as you read this book and will definitely be getting it from the library as soon as possible! 🙂

  11. Wow, this sounds amazing! It’s usually a great sign when the only bad thing you can say about a book was that it was too short. I’m adding this to my TBR list right away!

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