(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel NOV 28, 2003)
When I received American Woman in the mail to review, I didn't know anything about the author and little about the premise of the book. It must have been my lucky day, though, because I can't stop gushing about this novel to everyone I know.
The time is 1974. Rob Frazer, an ex-college football player turned radical, is looking for a farmhouse in the "middle of nowhere" New York state. He is currently living in Manhattan with his wife Carol, but is originally from Berkeley, California. His mission to find a farmhouse is because he has precious "cargo" that needs to be protected from others. Due to his responsibilities in Manhattan, Rob won't be able to look after his cargo, but he knows of a woman who can.
Jenny Shimada, an old comrade of Frazer's from Berkeley, is currently in New York State. She is a fugitive from the law; the FBI has created "wanted posters" of her for bombing Vietnam War recruiting stations. Her longtime lover, William, is currently in federal prison, serving time for the crime. Jenny has taken a job, restoring an old estate in upstate New York. She is helping the old matriarch of the home, and in return, receives free room and board. Everyone in Red Hook, New York knows her as Iris Wong from San Francisco.
As Jenny is hiding out and restoring crown molding in New York, things are erupting in California. "In Berkeley, a band of masked, armed, black-clad women and men kidnapped the nineteen-year old daughter of one of California's premier families."
As Jenny quietly goes about her work, listening to the Watergate scandal on the transistor radio she keeps for company, she hears the following: "'Today is April 3, 1974. I have been given the following choice: to be liberated to rejoin my family, or to join these comrades in their battle. My decision is made: I will stay with these comrades forever, because theirs is the only just battle there is.' To go with her new life the girl had taken a new name: Pauline.Two weeks later, the cadre held up a bank and made off with fifteen thousand dollars. "Pauline," clearly visible on the security tapes, looking either brainwashed or eerily calm, depending on your view. The money would fund The People's Liberation."
Frazer requests Jenny's help in harboring the fugitives. He tells Jenny that the remaining members of the People's Liberation- Yvonne, Juan, and Pauline- will hide out in upstate New York and write a book, illustrating their lives and beliefs. Frazer believes that this book, once published, will earn him back any money which he uses to feed and care for the fugitives. Jenny agrees to help the three fugitives, and so begins the turbulent summer of 1974.
"American Woman" is a wonderful illustration of historical fiction, but it is so much more than that. It is a strong character study of Jenny Shimada. Choi does an impeccable job at building multi-dimensional characters so much so that I felt deep compassion for Jenny, the intelligent student who protested the Vietnam War. She grew up with her father, who was a detainee at the US government camps during WWII because of his Japanese heritage. She and her father migrated to Japan when she was 9, due to her dad's disillusionment with the US government. After being snubbed in Japan for five years due to his US passport, she and her father came back to the states to try and make a life. These are characters which grow a place in your heart.
Choi's attention to detail in this story is also flawless. This author, who probably wasn't born until after 1980, has researched her time period and pulled it off with perfection. I read pretty carefully, and get a kick out of catching authors who give themselves away with little idiosyncrasies when they create times in the past. I couldn't find one mistake in Choi's portrayal of the seventies.
I'm going to go out on a limb here- after reading this book, I immediately thought "award" - this book deserves an award. As the National Book Award nominees had been announced, I wondered about Pulitzer. I want this book to win something so much that I checked out the Pulitzer website to find out the requirements. There aren't any requirements on the Pulitzer, besides five copies of the book, an application, and a $50 fee. The book is then judged by a board, and a winner is announced. Maybe there are some silent rules that those "in the publishing know" are privy to, but if it's as black and white as the website states, I hope someone with ties to this book has entered it in the pool, because in my opinion, American Woman is Pulitzer Prize winning material. It certainly is as good, if not better than the two previous winners, Middlesex and Empire Falls. This is definitely one of my best reads of 2003.
- Amazon readers rating: from 46 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from American Woman at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Foreign Student (1998)
- American Woman (2003)
- A Person of Interest (2008)
- My Education (July 2013)
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- Official website for Susan Choi
- Goldsea.com interview with Susan Choi
- Reading Guide for The Foreign Student
- Reading Guide for American Woman
- Curled Up review of American Woman
- The New York Times review of A Person of Interest
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About the Author:
Susan Choi was born in Indiana to a Korean Immigrant father and a Russian Jewish mother, and after a brief time in Japan, grew up with her mother in Houston, Texas. She graduated from Yale with a BA in literature in 1990 and earned a masters in Fine ARt for Cornell. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Discover Great New Writers Award at Barnes & Noble. With David Remnick, she edited an anthology of fiction entitled Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.