Wednesday, July 14, 2010

#26: If You Follow Me

There's plenty of internalizing taking place within the pages of Malena Watrous' If You Follow Me. Some of it is explicit, and at other times implied. But it's always there, lurking beneath the placid surface. If this is already starting to sound like a lifeless addition to the all-is-not-bliss-in-domestic-paradise genre, take a deeper look. In fact, all is not bliss here either -- the rare worthwhile novel is -- but the cast, a twenty-something lesbian couple, and the setting, rural Japan, help Watrous avoid fiction's most egregious cliches.

Marina is a twenty-something recent wanderer who, on something suspiciously like a lark, decided to follow her lover to East Asia for a year of teaching abroad. Her father's suicide, looming like an omnipresent monster in her recent past, was the catalyst that brought her and Carolyn together: they met in a bereavement group during senior year in college, where Marina mentally characterized her soon-to-be girlfriend as "tough and spiky, with a rod in her tongue and buzzed hair that moved through a Kool-Aid spectrum." Carolyn, for her part, was still grieving her loss, at age twelve, of her mother to cancer, and had been attending the bereavement group since freshman year.

The two were an unlikely pair to begin with; a year of living abroad together, then, was a monumental risk. And yet, Marina remembers, "when she asked if I'd consider moving to Japan with her, I didn't hesitate before saying yes...I couldn't go back to San Francisco," with all its childhood memories of her fading father and the stark reality of a mother trying desperately to move on.

Marina's sojourn in Japan is kicked off with a letter from her mentor, Hiroshi Miyoshi, a native son who has been handed the unfortunate task of keeping a close eye on the two Americans and facilitating their acclimation to Japanese social mores. Succumbing to bouts of self-consciousness, Miyoshi prefers to communicate disapproval of Marina's (frequent and unintentional) breaches of etiquette through handwritten letters written in rudimentary English; these missives provide the bulk of the laughs in what is often a deeply introspective story.

Miyoshi's inaugural letter scolds Marina on her ignorance of "gomi law," that maddeningly esoteric set of rules governing trash disposal. "Dear Miss Marina how are you? I'm fine thank you. A reason for this letter is: recently you attempt to throw away battery and jar and some kind of mushroom spaghetti and so forth, all together in one bin. Please don't try 'it wasn't me.' We Japanese seldom eat  Gorgonzola cheese!"

Time passes. The clock ticks and tocks. First, there is Marina and Carolyn fighting. Then there is Joe, a cheeky British fellow and the only person in Japan who knows that his two female acquaintances are not just friends, but intimate as well. Throw in a minor television celebrity, a unique cast of small-town Japanese friends (notably Noriko and Keiko), and a shifting relationship with Miyoshi, and one can see that Marina is due for some noticeable life changes.

What those changes entail impacts different people in different ways. Some of these changes are gradual, and others more sudden. Frustratingly, many of them fail to grab the reader's attention (at least mine) and hold it for the time necessary to make these metamorphoses feel significant. It is not so much that If You Follow Me is not a tale worth reading, but one gets the sense that it could have been shortened without much loss. Malena Watrous hits high marks for complexity, but mostly forgets the value of brevity.

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