The Buddha in the Attic

Length: 3 hrs and 52 mins
Categories: Fiction, Historical
3.5 out of 5 stars (321 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

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

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

Overall

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Performance

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Story

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

Fascinating topic, irritating writing style

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.

22 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

The Men They Married

“Because the only way to resist, our husbands had taught us, was by not resisting.”
― Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

I read entirely too much white male fiction. I know this. It is familiar and available. Abundant even. It is everywhere. So, I'm trying to reach beyond my normal boundaries. Read more minority voices, listen to another story. Otherwise, what good is fiction?

Julie Otsuka's little novella was quick. It checks in at 124 pages or so. But it sticks with you. It carries you*. It doesn't have one narrator, but a chorus of Japanese woman who immigrated to America in the early 20th century as mail-order brides for Japanese laborers in California. She follows this beautiful and tragic chorus of woman through a new country, a new culture, new husbands, work, loneliness, work, marriage, work, children, work, racism, and eventually the FDR's Japanese Concentration Camps of WWII (Executive Order 9066).

Newly married, living in Utah, I traveled to Delta, Utah with my wife and walked around the Topaz War Relocation Center. It was haunting. The images of dust and isolation came back to me 25-years-later as I read this book. It was written in 2011, but seems to warn us against the fear we seem to always have of the other (Mexicans, Muslims, Japanese, blacks, etc). We cage them because we don't recognize they are us. One of the lines that struck me the most from this short book was on page 124. It was the mayor of a California town speaking after the Japanese have been hauled away. Some of the words, however, came from a speech by Donald Rumsfeld in October of 2001 (before Guantanamo was a household word, before kids in cages, before black sites, and waterboarding became associated with America):

"There will be some things that people will see," he tells us. "And there will be some things that people won't see. These things happen. And life goes on."

Certainly, life will go on, but Otsuka' haunting prose; her beautiful narrative mantras; the pulsing rhythm of her Japanese chorus of women; her FPP anonymous narrators -- will all haunt me for a long time.

* Although a completely different book, I was reminded several times while reading this novella of O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried'

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Not what I expected

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.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Expected More

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.

6 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    1 out of 5 stars

Disappointed

Would you try another book from Julie Otsuka and/or Samantha Quan and Carrington MacDuffie ?

Probably not

Would you ever listen to anything by Julie Otsuka again?

Yes

What three words best describe Samantha Quan and Carrington MacDuffie ’s voice?

Clear, young, okay

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

The idea had potential. Great title.

Any additional comments?

The story started out interesting.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

New Americans

What made the experience of listening to The Buddha in the Attic the most enjoyable?

A classic love story. The perspective of what it felt like to be new in America in a different era. Describing different levels of acceptance or love by each individual, only to be rebuffed.

What does Samantha Quan and Carrington MacDuffie bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

The narrators give character to each individual by using emotion instead of voices.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

A New View of WWII

What did you love best about The Buddha in the Attic?

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.

Who was your favorite character and why?

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.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Good Story - Annoyingly Told

I'm not sure if this style of writing is common in Japan, but for my American ears it was horrible. There were perhaps twenty sentences in a row that all started with the same three or four words, which happened over and over again throughout the entire novel. It was so darn annoying and distracting - I had to force myself to keep listening, and didn't quite even make it to the end.

I thought it was going to be something similar to Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club - but it in no way compares. It could have, if the author used a different approach, but this is almost more like some weird kind of foreign poem that lasts for four hours - but it's not really a poem, either. I don't know what it is, but I know the tedious rhythm of it is a headache waiting to happen.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Mixed bag

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

I would have to say take it or leave it. You might get into it and be able to finish.

Any additional comments?

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

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Gorgeous Story Disappoints Some at End

Most of this is simply wonderful. Otsuka explores a powerful subject – the lives of several Japanese immigrants to America in the 1920s and 1930s up through the forced relocations of World War II. At the same time, she employs a striking technique: most of this is told in the first person plural, in a way as memorable as those rare staples of the approach, “A Rose for Emily” and “The Things They Carried.”

The heart of the story is more lyrical than narrative. It’s possible to track threads that imply the stories of particular individuals, but, for the most part, this recounts everything as it happens to “us.” We’ll get details that cannot have happened to the same individual – one having six children and one having eight – but the power of the work is in weaving all those separate experiences together into what feels like a whole.

Otsuka moves things forward in dramatic steps. Most of what we experience comes in chapters that linger over large historical moments. The first deals with the arrival of postcard brides, and it’s mesmerizing. Some are happy to leave difficult homes, and some are bereft. Some have affairs along the way, and others are so innocent that they have to interrogate the more experienced for details.

A later such chapter deals with the children, and it’s equally gorgeous in the way we get so many fragments of lives that come together. The effect is something like collage. She pushes different pieces together into a whole that suggests individual experiences and simultaneously gives us a sense of a larger, communal whole.

For me at least, the triumph of all that is to reimagine this experience with White Americans – the “we” of most such histories – as the others. The narrative here may be broken in a way that’s subtly reflective of the broken-English of many of the protagonists it offers us, but it achieves a structure that invites “us” into the experience. As whites, we are made to feel other to our own ancestors, to the Americans who allowed this traumatic experience to occur to other Americans who just happened to be of Japanese descent.

So, I love all of that and deeply admire it. I read this for a colleague’s class, and I’m glad to be introduced to Otsuka’s work. This is ambitious and successful in ways that resonate.

And then comes the final chapter.

I understand it’s a controversial one – but no worries about spoiling because there’s no conventional narrative here – but it troubles me to switch voices in the end. In place of the displaced Japanese-American women who have effectively narrated the earlier chapters, we get the voices of those white Americans who confront their absence. There are moving details, a Fuji restaurant becomes a conventionally named diner or a former Japanese home grows dusty and neglected, but I’m frustrated to be asked to empathize with a whole new set of concerns, and I am disappointed not to hear the Japanese Americans again.

There’s a trope in Holocaust studies that pushes against the notion of Jewish absence. The idea there is that we want to be able to hear the voices of those who endured and of those who survived. Jews are more than victims, and we need to hear such stories to remind us ever of that fact.

Here, I am sorry that the last glimpse we get of these Japanese is through the eyes of others. I’d have preferred to see Otsuka persist with her dramatic technical experiment. You can see how challenging it was for Faulkner and Tim O’Brien in their famous stories; the first-person plural doesn’t lend itself well to an ending.

Here, as gorgeous as most of this is, I think Otsuka makes the wrong choice of an ending.

This is a remarkable work, and I recommend it, but I can’t entirely appreciate how she’s chosen to wrap it up.