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!