This book like the previous Julie Otsuka’s novel is a good exercise in what fiction can be. However, this one is also necessarily limited in its capacity because of its form. It’s an exercise in storytelling, but it can only do so much. I suppose that’s more or less true about every novel, but at the end of this one, I feel like I have been told a story, but I have also witnessed something altogether different from that.
What I am getting at here is that this novel has a kind of conceit in the middle of it. It’s written in a collective, first-person plural voice. Constantly using “we” and “one of us” and other kinds these indications, the novel tells lots of stories, but never really gets into the nitty gritty of any of them.
There’s a kind of necessary distance placed between the reader and the story then.
The novel itself is the story of several women (representing a whole generation of several other women) who have been brought over to the US in the early part of the 20th century for new opportunities. They have had their way paid by the future, would-be husbands to live in the new lap of luxury.
When they show up, nothing is as promised, of course. The men are older, poorer, less educated. The work is harder, less glorious.
But they survive.
This novel sort of tells the making of the stereotype of the “model minority” at least as it pertains to early Japanese immigrants. These aren’t simply hard workers (even though they definitely are hard workers) but there’s a belief espoused by many of the women, that putting your head down and doing whatever is asked, no matter how indecent or undignified, is what is required.
The result is a generation of women without much voice, whose experiences are folded into each other’s.