BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

How to Be an American HousewifeOkay, I confess the cover put me off from opening the book for months (well, actually, years); I recently compromised by choosing to go aural and was surprisingly delighted to spend almost eight hours with narrators Laural Merlington and Emily Durante (who take turns reading as mother and daughter); I must be totally mellowing in my old age because I only cringed a few times over the less-than-accurate Japanese pronunciation. While the novel might get labeled beach-read or chick-lit, How to Be has some serious heft, exploring and exposing ethnic, cultural, generational, societal, gender, and religious disconnects – yup, all that and more!

Had World War II not decimated her country, Shoko would have had a very different life. But with war came the American military, including Charlie who Shoko’s father chose for her to marry when she presented him with the photographs of all her potential suitors. She had already fallen in love with the wrong man, barely survived losing him, and she needed to be practical.

Half a century later, Shoko is living in California – as Charlie’s wife, she’s been an American more than twice as long as she’s been Japanese. Her son, Mike, is himself already middle-aged, although he’s back living at home. In contrast, her daughter Sue verges on too independent, a divorced single mother with whom Shoko has a distanced relationship at best.

Now Shoko’s heart is failing, and she needs to repair the rifts in her past before she runs out of time. Her younger sister has already passed away, and somehow Shoko must find her older brother whom she has not seen or heard from since she left Japan. Physically unable to go herself, she convinces Sue and her granddaughter Helena to go in her stead. The journey to the other side of the world becomes exactly what the entire family needs to heal ….

According to her bio, Margaret Dilloway was inspired to write this, her first novel, by the experiences of her own Japanese mother and her American father, and the real-life book he gave her when she became his American housewife. That book – which Dilloway features on her author site – was The American Way of Housekeeping, written in both Japanese and English; although her mother “didn’t use it,” said her father, Dilloway herself “wonder[ed] how it had guided newly arrived brides. Eventually, the book served as the inspiration for [her] book-within-the-book, How to Be an American Housewife.

Dilloway begins each chapter with excerpts from her faux housewife-handbook; as epigraphs, they serve as ironic (“[i]f your husband wanted to have an independent, working woman, he would have married an American”), disturbing (“[m]any men find that a small Japanese wife is an asset when she walks on his back after a long, tiring day”), tragic (“… understood without explanation or question that in the United States a Japanese person will not be considered equal”), even comical (“when a Japanese person begins consuming Western foods, they become fat”) counterpoints to the real life that Shoko and Charlie share over the decades. That disconnect between well-intentioned advice and reality, cleverly captures the layered relationships between husband and wife, mother and daughter, and brother and sister. Easy-breezy reading it may be, but How to Be an American Housewife is also a resonating treatise on how we learn to just be with one another.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010


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