Julie Otsuka’s long awaited follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine (“To watch Emperor catching on with teachers and students in vast numbers is to grasp what must have happened at the outset for novels like Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird” - The New York Times) is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ nearly a century ago.
In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces their extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war.
In language that has the force and the fury of poetry, Julie Otsuka has written a singularly spellbinding novel about the American dream.
From the Hardcover edition
©2011 Julie Otsuka (P)2011 Random House Audio
We enjoyed the fresh perspective on history.
We enjoyed hearing the fascinating stories of these women’s lives.
We enjoyed seeing how varied, how individual, how unique these women were.
We got sick of the constant use of the plural form.
We got sick of the repetition.
We got sick of the constant jumping from person to person, never settling on any one individual for more than a few sentences.
We thought at first that four hours was awfully short for an unabridged audiobook, but by the end of it we didn’t mind that it wasn’t longer.
I loved Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine and have been waiting for years for her to publish a second novel. I had high expectaions, but, sadly, they weren't quite met. The Buddha in the Attic exhibits the same lovely, spare, almost-poetic style, reminiscent of a fine brush lightly stroked across rice paper--nothing to fault there. And in telling bits of the stories of Japanese picture-brides, Otsuka intrigues us with the beautiful, the sad, the mundane, and the horrific. The problem, for me, is her choice of what is mainly a first person plural narration--"we"--to represent them (although periodically she shifts to "they," speaking both of the women's offspring but also of the white Americans, who later become "we"; are you confused yet?). Otsuka claims that she chose this form because "the Japanese are a collective people," but it seemed more like a gimmick to me.
There are two main problems with this narration. First, stylistically, it starts to get monotonous, even though some of the details, events and images are striking. Second, aside from the basic fact that all the women are picture brides who emigrate from Japan, they are NOT all from similar backgrounds, nor are all their experiences in America all similar. Here's an example of what I mean--which is NOT Otsuka's exact language but my attempt to recreate a section of the audiobook:
Some of our husbands looked like their photographs. Some of our husbands were 20 years older than in their photographs. Some of our husbands had sent us photographs of a handsome friend. Some of our husbands were very tall. Some of our husbands were shorter than we were. All of our husbands had that strange smell. What was it? Some of our husbands beat us every night. One of our husbands treasured his wife like a pearl. Many of our husbands got drunk every night. Some of our husbands bought us special gifts to show their love. Some of our husbands took up our work in the fields when we were too exhausted so the boss wouldn't get mad. Some of our husbands made us sleep on straw in the barn like dogs.
Well, you get the idea. I understand why many readers were captivated, but, personally, I wanted to know more about the woman who, when asked if she would sleep with a man for $5, told him she would for 10. I would much have preferred to read the developed stories of a few women's lives than to read these artful lists of "collective" lives. In When the Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka's multiple narrators--simply called the woman, the man, the boy, and the girl--were much more successful, I think, in creating the sense of a community's shared experience.
Would I have liked it better in print than on audio? I don't think so; the main reader was actually quite good.
I thought this would be a sort of "culture clash" type book with a good bit of humor. The "plural voice" used was interesting and not off-putting to me. I'll have to say there was much less humor than I expected, especially when it came to recounting the histories of the people who were sadly interned during WW2. It did go on and on somewhat like the "begats" in the Bible.
Clear, young, okay
The idea had potential. Great title.
The story started out interesting.
I do crossword puzzles in pen.
As a reader of historical fiction, I've read a lot of WWII fiction, but "The Buddha in the Attic" gave a viewpoint I've never read: The story of Japanese women in America just before and during WWII. A great read for anyone interested in the time period.
One of the best things about "The Buddha in the Attic" was that there were really no specific characters. The entire book was told in first/third person plural, everything was "We..." or "One of us..." or "The children..." or "The husbands..." It took a while to get used to, but it was an interesting viewpoint.
I would have to say take it or leave it. You might get into it and be able to finish.
I didn't have any trouble with the beginning of the book. I actually started it twice, thinking that the second time I'd be prepared and would be able to stay tuned. It is good. However, the unending LISTS made the voice very predictable, and to me, a little maddening. The plot and messages are good, and I will probably fast forward to the end to see what happens, but I'm skipping the meat
written too much like Gothic for me, cute. third person narrative loses it at times.
A young woman tells her own story, through the lives of her Japanese mothers and grandmothers, who moved to America in order to marry Japanese men that had gone before. Like Walt Whitman, sometimes she tells her story by vignettes, in a few words, or a sentence, listed one after another, that glimpse life in this strange new land.
Somehow, it was constantly surprising to hear the California middle class towns identified as home to a people still rooted in the old country. America was the land of opportunity. The women were often, maybe more often than not, rudely surprised by what they found when they came to America. But their families made it clear they could never return, that there was no more home for them in Japan. So, having made a choice, or their family having made a choice for them, they simply do whatever is necessary in order to survive. They usually marry the men they contracted for, and put up with them, warts and all. The author makes no effort to present the women as angels; just as hardworking, unquestioning, obedient, partners to their husbands. The story shifts gradually to the Japanese people as a whole in America, who made the best of a new world, became functioning and integral parts of their communities, and were rewarded with distrust and alienation during WW II. Yet, her story gleams with gentleness, caring for her people and regretting not an instant that she is American.
Most of the Audible readers do a wonderful job, and these readers were no different. They keep the story moving, injecting feeling, characterization, and rhythm to the story. I read about a book a week on Kindle, but I absorb books nearly as quickly on audible, listening at every opportunity. In this story, it is a woman's story, told through the voices of women, gentle, but unsparing, not in the least pointlessly sweet or adorned.
I have listened to two other books since this one, but the sweet thoughtfulness of the story, the relentless telling of the lives of others in diamond flashes rather than long biographies, the sense of an entire people trying so hard to be accepted, will live on for me for a long time.
A fresh account of Japanese soon-to-be wives coming to America to find a better life, with the intention to send money back home to the families left behind. It didn't work out the way they planned. Some of the women married and worked on farms, while others worked as domestic help, and yet other women lived under slave-like conditions with no immediate means to alter their circumstances. The narration enhanced the story, and I found it to be compelling.
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