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How to be an American Housewife, Margaret Dilloway

2010/09/02

The novel begins in Japan, narrated by Shoko, a young Japanese girl who begins by writing, “I had always been a disobedient girl.” As Shoko grows up, she goes to work for the Americans in order to earn money to send her brother to school. After a short engagement to a Japanese man who cheats with her roommate, Shoko and her father decide she should marry an American because “America is the way of the future.” While Shoko is dating American men to find the best match, she falls in love with a lower-class Japanese man, but knows that she must marry up. She ends up marrying Charlie, a red-haired American naval medic; their children, Mike and Sue, are raised American. When Shoko grows ill and is hospitalized, she wants nothing more than to make a trip back to Japan to see her estranged brother. Instead, Sue and her daughter Helena, are sent in Shoko’s stead.

This novel is named after a fictional handbook which was published to help Japanese wives of American soldiers learn how to manage in the US; excerpts of this are printed at the beginning of each chapter. The handbook was actually based on a real publication called “The American Way of Housekeeping.” I enjoyed reading this novel, although I am not sure how I feel about the American-born daughter, Sue, going to Japan and suddenly finding peace and a purpose for her life. Still, at the risk of sounding cliched, this novel works on several levels — as a mother/daughter story, as a “getting back to your roots” path of discovery, as a critique of stereotypes, as a family saga.

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