Monday, June 29, 2015

The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self, and Home on the Far Side of the World by Tracy Slater (memoir)

This memoir took me awhile to get interested in. Reviewing a memoir is always tough, as you really don't want to appear to say, "I didn't like the book, your life is dull".  So I tend to be a bit more forgiving in reading one because they are putting themselves out there for all to see (and review!).

As it begins, Tracy has an ideal Boston life, surviving her family drama but in style: writing, teaching, shoe purchasing.  She has friends, a home, and all is well.  At this point, in her descriptions I found her a little annoying, condescending almost, just in her tone.  I'm not sure what set off that alarm in me but I hit a point where I thought, "Should I bother continuing?"

Yes, I needed to. Because in an impeccable work of writing, she manages to show us how she changes once she starts her new job.  This job involves working as a sort of business liaison/etiquette expert for Asian businessmen on the brink of going global. They already know English, but the particular social cues and protocols still need some working out.  In a dull classroom, she tries to explain the differences in conversational approaches and other things that are so different in the US from Asia.

She immediately falls for Toru, a Japanese businessman, and he is similarly smitten with her. Their relationship starts fast and grows exponentially.  The art of this is we see her transform in her words: just simple word choices and phrases are different from the pre-trip Tracy.  So instead of her describing herself as having changed, we see it evolving already without being told.  I was really impressed with this: usually you have the memoir writer explaining their transition verbally.  She doesn't.  The explanation is visible as she simply talks about who she and Toru have become.

The biggest problem to meet them isn't their affection, but the division of society's lifestyles between her home place and his.  Knowing they are in this for the long haul, she has to imagine if she can leave her beloved Boston or if he should move with her.  It's not as simple as thinking "love conquers all".  There is more than geographical change: the culture change is much greater.  Japanese society often (not always) features women that are more passive and submissive than the upper-class, college-educated independent academic that Tracy is.  They are well-educated too, but the social niceties are more subtle- less forthrightness, less group activities, and even a way of keeping their eyes downcast in submission.  I could see how huge this variance would be for me, and I'm a mild person. Many women I know would be about as welcome as Godzilla with their American manners and abrupt and forceful personalities.

Fortunately, Tracy and Toru are willing to try and work it out.  Give and take. All those self-help book advice mantras are suddenly put in play.  Can they find a way to honor his family and retain her love of American culture? All or nothing?

As I read this, I wish it had pictures. Toru sounds so handsome, and Tracy (I saw her picture) is lovely.  I'd like to see them together.  So few memoirs feature pictures!   In any case, I really enjoyed exploring the ups and downs of their relationship. At one point, as they're sleeping, she realizes for once she can relax and simply "be".  That's something hard to find, that everyone wants.  Someone with whom they can "be".

And for emphasis, I have to repeat that the way she writes is so compelling regarding the personal transformation in her beliefs and attitudes. I can't wait to see if she writes more: I'd like to see her do this with a character and show us (not tell) how they change and grow.  It's a beautiful skill and one I don't notice often in a memoir.  The last few I've read were overbearing in their author's explaining themselves, as if they were defensive and being interviewed on Dr. Phil. This one flows much more naturally and more intensely simply by her use of events and actions rather than exposition.

Review copy provided to Amazon Vine
by GP Putnam's Sons, and releases today, June 30, 2015.

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