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I've not had good experiences with novels by graduates from the Iowa Writers' Workshop - they often seem to either be trying too hard to be funny, or trying too hard to be ultra-clever. This I'm afraid was no exception. The plot sounds promising enough. Marina, a young university graduate who's never quite recovered from her father's suicide, moves with her girlfriend Carolyn (a co-student who she met through bereavement sessions) to Japan to teach English, at Carolyn's suggestion. Unfortunately they are posted to a remote town near a nuclear power station, rather than to Tokyo, Kyoto or any of the other big cities. Both struggle to come to terms with Japanese culture and the endless rules (such as the 'gomi' rules for disposing of rubbish which Marina's teaching mentor Hiroshi Myoshi keeps reminding her of) and Marina seems uncomfortable about letting her colleagues know about her relationship. Moreover, she's starting to become attracted to Hiro, despite their very different backgrounds and attitudes to life - and though Carolyn was the one initially so keen on Japan, it's Marina who's becoming interested in making local friends and settling in.
The trouble is that Watrous doesn't seem to have decided on the sort of novel she wants to write - whether 'If You Follow Me' is comic or serious, whether it's about Marina coming to terms with her bereavement, about her relationship with Carolyn or about day to day life in small-town Japan. I wasn't surprised to learn that this novel was based on the author's own experiences (in the same town described here I believe) - large sections read almost as though they were copied from a diary, and are focussed on day to day events and domestic dramas - a trip to learn 'ikebana' (Japanese flower-arranging), trips to the supermarket, an unsuccessful dinner with a fellow-teacher, endless feuds with the neighbours and their overweight son, various 'set pieces' such as a speech by local dignitaries and a sumo wrestling competition that goes horribly wrong. While there's nothing wrong with this, it all feels a bit flat, and the characters - other than Hiroshi - are not very clearly defined, and tend to merge into a blend of ultra-feminine, attractive and quiet women and slightly authoritarian or difficult men. The humour I didn't find funny at all on the whole (other than some of Hiroshi's ultra-courteous letters), particularly the death of the cat.
As for the Carolyn and bereavement aspects of the plot, I felt they got pushed to one side by the sheer number of events and descriptions of small-town life in Japan that the author was trying to cram into her book. I had little idea at the start what the relationship with Carolyn meant to Marina, and still less at the end, by which time Carolyn had pretty well faded from the book. The bereavement theme seemed to get picked up and dropped rather randomly, and it was still unclear at the end exactly why Marina's father had become mentally ill and what her relationship was with him (at one stage they seemed close, at another he became something of a monster, smashing a record just because she'd listened to it). Her relationship with her mother also remained unclear. Nor really did I feel sure what Marina felt for Hiro - whether she actually did love him, or if he was just another way to escape her grief and uncertainty about what to do with her life.
In the end, I think the author raised a lot of potentially serious and thought-provoking themes, but then failed to tackle any of them because she was so determined to write a comic novel. This unfortunately meant that the humour got monotonous, and that though there were some lovely scenes - some of Marina's conversations with Hiro, some descriptions of places they visited - neither the scenario nor the characters were really interesting enough to keep me involved. I wonder in the end whether the author might have been better off writing a memoir of her time in Japan, and trying a more imaginative and less life-experience based novel? Not sure this is someone I'll keep reading, in any case.
I was truly impressed by this book. The plot is simple, two American girls with ample emotional baggage set out to teach English in Japan. That they are lovers in a new relationship complicates things as they find themselves in a remote village in Japan that has a mind bending structure for trash sorting and disposal. Here not only do they discover each other , but are able to free themselves of the demons from the past that are holding them back. Here they also find new relationships and discover the true meaning of love and loss. Malena Watrous has done a wonderful job of weaving in the Japanese culture and language without once being preachy or having it sound like an exposition. And she writes about the idiosyncrasies of the culture and the characters without coming off as cocky or derogatory. I particularly appreciated that each chapter started with a japanese word that lead us through the chapter. I had no idea till I read the anglification of Japanese words till I read this lovely book.
I really liked how close the author gets into her character's thinking about her life as she experiences it, and that it's both so intimate but also often funny. And all mixed with the strangeness, to her of Japan and its culture and language.
A great story of self discovery and traveling to a far away land. Malena has a deft hand at translating the nuances of Japanese culture, and her characters' experience there. It is clever, funny and poignant. A very good book.
In IF YOU FOLLOW ME, Watrous writes about people we all know; hers is a story of self discovery in which the reader shares. In many outsider novels, there is the 'other' and then there is the 'known.' In FOLLOW, there is no 'other.'
Though Watrous had me laughing so hard I dropped my book on several occasions, it was often a bittersweet kind of laughter - not "ha, ha, ha." Bittersweet because the writing is so honest. The character of the Japanese supervisor and English teacher is one of my favorite characters in all of literature. His "Japlish" letters are unconventional to say the least, but his affection for his students and for Marina in particular made me love him all the more. You'll meet other Japanese characters in FOLLOW that will seem more familiar than foreign - in particular a first grade boy whose relationship with his autistic brother is complicated but oh so human.
I ordered this book from Amazon this week and finished it almost overnight. I could not attend to anything else. It's that kind of story. Read it. You won't regret it.