How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway is story about culture, tradition, family strife, and mothers and daughter. Shoko is a Japanese woman who marries an American GI after WWII and moves to America. Her father agrees with the union as he feels it is the best way for Shoko to get a better life. However, her younger brother, fueled with anger at the Japanese losing the war and the resulting American occupation, feels Shoko has shamed her family and her country. For decades the two do not speak. When a much older Shoko falls ill and feels her life is about to end, she is eager to visit Japan one last time to find her brother. When it's apparent that she is too ill to make the trip herself, she asks her daughter, Sue, a divorced mother and the object of much criticism from Shoko, to make the trip and find her brother for her.This trip brings to light a long family secret that effects the family in various ways.
I found this book to be an enriching and quick read. The book is split between the points of view of Shoko and Sue, which I feel is the best way to write this novel because it allows us to get the full story. Typical mother-daughter conflicts exist between Shoko and Sue that cross over many cultural boundaries. Shoko has very high hopes and standards for Sue, but because of her upbringing she has difficulty expressing her true feelings, that of love and overall pride, towards her daughter. Sue feels she is nothing but a great disappointment to her mother due to Shoko's constant criticism. Sue believes that no matter what she does, she will never live up to her mother's expectations and will therefore never be able to please Shoko. Thus, Sue is often indifferent, defiant, and rebellious. What makes these conflicts even more difficult are cultural clashes as well as generation clashes. Sue was not allowed to read teen magazines, wear jeans, or interact with boys like other American girls because, according to Shoko and her husband, these were not things a proper Japanese-American girls should do. The result was a daughter so naive and desperate for freedom that she married the first boy she kissed, had a daughter at a young age and ended up divorced.
What sort of disappointed me about this book is that the title is a bit misleading. Even though each chapter begins with an excerpt from a book called How to be an American Housewife, which Shoko's husband gave to Shoko in order to make her transition into American life easier, the novel doesn't really go into Shoko's adaptation into life as an American housewife. Dilloway does express how difficult it was for Shoko to learn the language and to make friends with the other American housewives and the effect it had on her children. That is important and Dilloway does it quite well. There are only a few instances, however, where we experience Shoko's life as an American housewife: the times where Shoko refused help from her mother-in-law with housework during visits due to Japanese customs and when Shoko learned how to make American spaghetti and meatballs. In fact, without the excerpts at the beginning of each chapter, we don't really see a lot of the cultural differences between the Japanese housewife and the American housewife and what Japanese women have to learn (or unlearn) to be a proper American housewife. I think if Dilloway had spent a little extra time going into that, it would've made this novel even more powerful. As the novel stands, I do recommend it to those, like me, who are fascinated by Asian culture and like strong female protagonists.