Before I get to the book, I wanted to suggest again that you check out “Where I’m Going,” the new single from Cut Copy, available for free on their website. I may have sold it short by calling it “straight-up early Britpop;” after listening it a few more times, including once with the volume turned up (inadvertently) too high, I realized that there are layers of sound beyond that surface candy, even beyond the Who-like keyboard bridge in the middle of the track. At a cost of zero, it’s worth every penny.
I received a review copy of Malena Watrous’ debut novel If You Follow Me in the spring, and I think it speaks to how deep my book queue is that I just got around to it last week after finally abandoning the leaden Night Train to Lisbon after about 130 pages. Watrous’ novel takes the standard fish-out-of-water plot and layers a story of personal drama and growth on top of it while achieving the unusual feat of tying up the minor plot threads while leaving the macro issues open.
The narrator, Marina, has come to Japan as an English teacher with her girlfriend, Carolyn, whom she met in a bereavement group about a year and a half before the novel starts when her father took his own life. (Carolyn’s mother died of cancer about eight years before that.) Marina isn’t so much following Carolyn as running from her unresolved grief and anger, but Watrous never allows that darkness to choke the life out of the novel, allowing other characters to come to the fore and even slipping in some light humor.
While Watrous works the fish-out-of-water angle for humor, particularly with Marina’s struggles to understand their small town’s rules for disposing of garbage (gomi), she uses it more to introduce a cast of unusual characters, some eccentric, but most with very real problems. Marina’s supervisor, Hiro, has a strange love of karaoke, communicates with Marina primarily through letters, and is thoroughly depressed by his job. Keiko is ignored by her useless husband and struggles to manage her two sons, one suicidal and another socially maladjusted. Haruki, the only boy in the school’s “secretarial” track, has just returned to school after bullying led him to shut himself in his room for three years, and the boys who bully him have, of course, their own reasons for their behavior. The array of well-drawn characters gives the book a richness that wouldn’t normally be present in this type of story, which usually has the protagonist/narrator as the only normal person and the major focus of the book, with the locals serving as comic relief or simply foils for the main character. Marina also serves as her own sort of comic relief, from her trouble with the gomi rules to her misadventures in driving (in a car with doors that don’t open) to her use of some rather risque materials to get the tough-kids class to pay attention to her English lessons, and the self-effacing voice Watrous gave her alter ego works extremely well through those episodes.
Beyond the mature characterization, I loved Watrous’ infusion of grief and loneliness into the novel without turning it into a bleak, depressing, or hopeless work. Marina keeps her grief at arm’s length – she can’t dispose of it any more than she can dispose of her intermittently-operating refrigerator – and learns something about her grief and herself from watching her charges and neighbors in the small town of Shika … but not everything, as Watrous doesn’t tie it all up in a neat package at the book’s end. Marina makes headway, opens herself up to new adventures, and finds some closure with her father, but at the end it’s clear that she’s still a work in progress. That realistic touch elevated the book to something more than a trivial read for me.
Three disorganized thoughts on If You Follow Me:
- The cover isn’t doing the book any favors – celery green with a healthy dose of pink. It’s not chick lit, but it sure seems like they’re marketing it that way. I don’t view a book about a female main character as de facto chick lit, and the themes Watrous explores are universal across gender and sexual orientation.
- If you’re thinking a book starring a lesbian is going to have some hot girl-on-girl action, you’ll probably be disappointed. That said, I thought the few brief mentions of sex seemed a little extraneous to the plot – more placeholders to get from one scene to the next (start sex scene, drop curtain) than actual plot drivers. I do give Watrous credit for a delicate hand, since I think 90% of the sex scenes I come across are painful to read.
- Watrous studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under, among others, Marilynne Robinson, author of three novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead and her debut novel Housekeeping, #58 on the last iteration of Klaw 100. And Watrous’ prose did remind me in many ways of Robinson’s – not quite as beautiful, as Robinson appears to have invented the English language and merely tolerates the rest of us playing with it, but gentle and sensitive in ways that Robinson’s is as well.
Next up: Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby.