March 21, 2012


by Julie Otsuka
Kindle Edition, Alfred A. Knopf

Review by J. S. Colley

I was very eager to read this novel and, even though there are much cheaper ebooks out there, I decided to pay this publisher’s higher list price. I’ve always been drawn to books about Asian culture and history. I loved The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan, and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, among many others; but, about half way through The Buddha in the Attic, I lost interest in it.

The story surrounds the Japanese women who were sent over to San Francisco in the 1920s to be “picture brides,” or what we would call “mail order brides.” The book is written in the collective “we” of all the women and is separated into eight sections: Come, Japanese!, First Nights, Whites, Births, The Children, Traitors, Last Day, and Disappearance.

I found the writing very engaging at first, but by the time I got to the fourth section, “Births,” I grew weary of it. It was like reading a long, tiresome to-do list. See if you agree:

We gave birth under oak trees, in summer, in 113-degree heat. We gave birth beside woodstoves in one-room shacks on the coldest nights of the year. We gave birth on windy islands in the Delta, six months after we arrived, and the babies were tiny, and translucent, and after three days they died. We gave birth nine months after we arrived to perfect babies with full heads of black hair. We gave birth in dusty vineyard camps in Elk Grove and Florin. We gave birth on remote farms in the Imperial Valley with the help of only our husbands, who had learned from The Housewife’s Companion what to do. First you bring the pan water to a boil … We gave birth in Rialto by the light of kerosene lantern on top of an old silk quilt we had brought over with us in our trunk from Japan. It still had my mother’s smell. We gave birth like Makiyo, in a barn out in Maxwell, while lying on a thick bed of straw. I wanted to be near the animals. We gave birth alone, in an apple orchard in Sebastopol, after searching for firewood one unusually warm autumn morning high up in the hills. I cut her navel string with my knife and carried her home in my arms. We gave birth in a tent in Livingston with the help of a Japanese midwife who had traveled twenty miles on horseback to see us from the next town. We gave birth in towns where no doctor would see us, and we washed out the afterbirth ourselves. I watched my mother do it many times. We gave birth in towns with only one doctor, whose prices we could not afford. We gave birth with the assistance of Dr. Ringwalt, who refused to let us pay him his fee. “You keep it,” he said. We gave birth among our own, at the Takahashi Clinic of Midwifery on Clement Street in San Francisco. We gave birth at the Kuwabara Hospital on North Fifth Street in San Jose. We gave birth on a bumpy country road in Castroville in the back of our husband’s Dodge truck. The baby came too fast. We gave birth on a dirt floor covered with newspapers in a bunkhouse in French Camp to the biggest baby the midwife had ever seen in her life. Twelve and a half pounds. We gave birth with the help of the fish seller’s wife, Mrs. Kondo, who had known our mother back home in Japan. She was the second prettiest girl in the village. We gave birth behind a lace curtain at Adachi’s Barbershop in Gardena while our husband was giving Mr. Ota his weekly shave. We gave birth quickly, after hours, in the apartment above Higo Ten Cent. We gave birth while gripping…

Did you read it all? Be honest.

I’m not a woman who takes childbirth lightly, but this goes on for seven more (ebook) pages. Yikes.

The previous sections were written in the same manner. Here’s a sample: Who would pick the strawberries from their fields? Who would get the fruits from their trees? Who would scrub their carrots? (Okay don’t laugh, that wasn’t meant as a euphemism—or maybe it was?) Who would mend their garments? Who would iron their shirts?

This goes on for thirteen more sentences.

After a while, not only the repetitive nature of the narrative, but also the “we” aspect grated on me. Perhaps if the author had figured out a way to narrow the focus to a few of the women, without sacrificing the collective aspect, it might have appealed to me more.

I used to be one of those people who finished a book once I started, no matter what. No more. I’m very busy and do lots of reading. At times, I suffer from terrible eyestrain. I decided if I wasn’t anxious to read the next page, I would put it down—with no regrets. And that’s exactly what I did.

I did enjoy the first three sections, although I was already starting to feel a little put upon. Perhaps the last four sections were outstanding and would change my overall opinion of the book, but I just wasn’t willing to wade through “Births” to find out.

However, old habits die hard, and I’m already feeling a little guilty. If I ever decide to go back and finish reading to the end, I’ll come back and give an update. Until then, I can’t say I recommend it.

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