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Review: How to Be an American Housewife, Margaret Dilloway

Shoko, a young Japanese girl, is uncertain of her future in Japan; she is clever, but she can’t get very far without marrying someone of her class.  She and her father eventually decide that she should marry an American, so when she starts dating Charlie, the decision to marry is an easy one.  Years later, Shoko suffers from the same ailment that killed her sister, an enlarged heart.  Uncertain of how long she has left, Shoko longs to return to Japan and make amends with her family, but the doctor deems her too unwell.  Instead, her daughter Sue, with whom she has always had difficulties, heads off to find them for her, learning much more than she would have expected about her mother in the process.

I was a little wary of this book when I started, simply because I wasn’t sure if it was for me.  Similar books have ended up with me disliking them, and despite near universal praise I thought I might not like this one either.  I was completely wrong, though; the power of Dilloway’s storytelling swept me away and I got completely caught up in Sue and Shoko’s individual stories.

As always, though, my favorite part was that set in Japan during Shoko’s youth.  I always prefer the historical fiction over the modern day part of stories.  It frustrated me that her intelligence couldn’t get her anywhere, that she had to marry because that was simply what young girls did.  She worked, but it was clear there was no path for her.  I was also fascinated by her motivations in marrying Charlie – overall, I thought this section was just really well done.

I also found the relationship between Shoko and Sue to be completely believable.  I could easily understand how Sue resented her mother and the way her childhood had been different from everyone else’s, but saw how much she still cared for her.  Their relationship felt very real to me and though I haven’t experienced that particular one, I think any pair of mothers and daughters could see something of themselves in their bond.  Sue’s discovery of her mother’s past in detail – things that they’d never discussed – was also a fantastic journey of discovery, made even better by the fact that her daughter went along, too.

This was also a quick, delightful read, with nice even turns of phrase and nothing to really distract the reader from its central mother-daughter storyline.  I did find that it even had a bit of suspense, as after Shoko’s heart surgery the book switches to Sue’s perspective and we have no idea what’s happened to Shoko.  It added tension to her discoveries and gave the book an edge of unpredictability when the rest of it was fairly straightforward.

How to Be an American Housewife was a speedy read that really engaged all of my emotions.  I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys women’s fiction or historical fiction on post-World War II Japan.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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