Saturday, June 9, 2012

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

A young American woman experiences rural Japanese culture

This novel is about a recent college graduate, Marina, who, on a whim, and in an attempt to escape her feelings after her father’s suicide, follows her lesbian girlfriend, Carolyn, to a rural Japanese teaching assignment. Only it’s always freezing there, and her girlfriend starts to dislike her, and she just has lots of trouble fitting into this odd culture. But the harshness and the sadness and the isolation force her to grow up.

In addition to being a work of fiction, it’s also a semi journalistic view of Japan. A grouchy old neighbor harasses her about not sorting her gomi or trash correctly. The letters her handler, Miyoshi, sends to counsel her about the trash are truly hilarious, and Watrous was right to open the novel with a sample letter.

The first person narration was open and honest and very readable. The main conflict was not between the two lovers, as one would expect from the title, but between Marina’s freewheeling American ways and the Japanese rule driven conformist culture. That provided the narrative momentum, for a while anyway. Then the story went on for a bit too long and had to be forcibly wrapped up with characters screaming at each other on a beach. 

What worked was Marina’s analysis of this alien culture. What didn’t quite work was depicting the motivations behind the different relationships, or even introducting a romantic angle at all. I’m not sure why this got nominated for a Lambda award as Marina’s same sex attraction was almost presented as something she would grow out of. A phase.

Overall, this was enjoyable to read.

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