Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Susan Choi's American Woman

I've been remiss, because I finished this book last Tuesday and only now have the time to write about it.

Nominated for the Pulitzer in 2003, American Woman lost to Middlesex. I would have hated to be a judge in that contest.

A thinly veiled rendition of the Patty Hearst abduction, American Woman is seen primarily through Jenny Shimada, a twenty-five year-old Japanese American on the lam after blowing up a government building. She's been on her own for a year or so when Rob Frazer, a fellow traveler, asks her to look after three younger people who need protection. In no position to argue--Rob has helped her remain underground--she is horrified to find herself in upstate New York with Juan, Yolanda, and kidnapped heiress Pauline. After weeks in a closet, Pauline professes to accept her captors' worldview, willingly participating in a bank robbery that culminates in their safe house being firebombed. Her face and story are everywhere.

The story unfolds in a complex narrative, moving between Jenny's difficult childhood, racism, feminism, and the upheaval that defined Berkeley in the 1960's and early '70's. We learn of Jenny's lover, William Weeks, who masterminded the bombings that left him in prison and Jenny alone on the run. We learn about Pauline's upbringing, basically the Hearst story, complete with castles and bigotry, about the almost pathetic innocence that drove these middle-class children into violent rebellion. We also hear from Jenny's father, Jim Shimada, whose imprisonment in Manzanar poisoned his life. The book's movement from past injustices to present events shines light on the characters' motivations; people we might otherwise dislike are sympathetic, if misled.

Choi shows us the human cost of life outside society: a life of constant fear, loneliness, and physical discomfort. Well-paying work, leading to decent housing and adequate clothing, is impossible. One cannot fall ill, as seeking medical care means arrest. Normal human relationships--friendship, love, contact with family--are unthinkably dangerous. Thus Jenny's terrible loneliness and increasingly close bond with Pauline, who, we come to know, can and will do anything to survive.

Choi's evocation of California is marvelous: her familiarity with Berkeley and inland California root the book firmly in place. Her description of cadres and revolutionary cells is almost sad; it is difficult to envision an American teenager over age thirteen who isn't hopelessly jaded about world events or the possibility for renewal, violent or otherwise. Yet no reader can escape the irony of Islamic fundamentalism's fatal parallels.

I don't want to give away the ending, but be warned: you won't be able to put the book down until you get to it, and unlike many current works, this one takes its time, sewing up threads, leaving the reader completely satisfied. Well, not really--it's the kind of book you want to go on forever. Barring that, we can look forward to Ms. Choi's next work.

Susan Choi: American Woman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003.

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