Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

Marina is twenty-two, living in rural Japan, and teaching English in a vocational university. She moved to Japan with her girlfriend Carolyn, in part to escape her grief over her father's suicide. But living in the midst of such a foreign culture, bottling her emotions up so tightly, and hiding the actual nature of her relationship with Carolyn makes for a stressful and eventful year. The novel opens with a letter to Marina from her supervisor Miyoshi-sensei trying to explain to her the importance of the elaborate and confusing gomi (trash) disposal rules in rural Shika and her neighbors' unhappiness at her inability to follow these rules. Throughout the year, Marina continues to receive these letters from her supervisor, both chastizing her and illuminating the Japanese character.

Marina's experience teaching is not at all what she expected and her relationship with Carolyn struggles and undergoes a major shift during this year abroad. Marina's students run the gamut from girls studying to become secretaries and oblivious to the accepted marginalization of women that surrounds them, to cock-sure boys destined to work at gas stations and in factories who harrass Marina and Miyoshi-sensei, to a silent and sullen former shut-in. She finds the majority of her interaction with the Japanese in town to be superficial, suffering disappointment whenever she thinks she's making a friend and discovering that said new friend only wants free English conversation. So the fact that she and Miyoshi-sensei develop a friendship is all the more valuable, until a strain threatens to eliminate this source of comfort for Marina. Meanwhile, being each other's only friend and companion is proving to be too much for Marina and Carolyn's relatively new relationship as they find themselves sinking under the combined weights of homesickness, loneliness, and grief.

Absurdities, humor, disturbing events and characters, and quirks, cultural and personal, abound in this novel. While the entire year covered in the book is narrated by Marina, the other characters do come off as fully-rounded as her understanding of them allows them to be. The conceit of using Miyoshi-sensei's letters to Marina to insert interesting cultural tidbits about Japan that otherwise would seem out of place, is well done and creative. Isolation as a major theme is handled well, with Marina's internalized feelings accurately reflected by her external circumstances: grief and aloneness reflected in her failing relationship and in her cultural isolation. Watrous has drawn a vivid picture of a small corner of Japan and although it is a picture that entices me to visit Japan not at all, I still appreciate the insight into the culture. More than the story of a young woman traveling part way around the world to find herself amidst a completely different culture, this plumbs the depths of love, life, and community.

Check out Malena Watrous'Facebook page.

Thanks to Trish and TLC Book Tours for sending me a review copy of this book.


  1. Sounds like a moving novel. Stories about people moving to other countries and trying to adapt to new cultures always fascinate me, and it sounds like this one has a lot of depth. Great review!

  2. Sounds like an interesting novel. Great review.

  3. I have this one in my TBR pile, and am hoping to get to it this week. Thanks for the review!

  4. I loved this book! I completely agree that it does not make me want to visit that part of Japan. Normally, books set in other places make me want to visit them, but I loved how Watrous used the setting to make the reader understand the discomfort and alienation of Marina.

  5. good review! a definite read. Thanks!

  6. Hi Kristen, Carrie, and others,

    I hope you don't mind that I chime in on the conversation. Some of the book bloggers have asked me to, and I enjoy speaking with readers, but I also always feel a bit sheepish, like I'm eavesdropping. Thank you for your lovely review. I can't help but say that I didn't mean to turn anyone off from wanting to visit Japan, which is really an amazing place. The region where the novel is set is super provincial and hard to get to from any major city, but the cities--Kyoto in particular--are fascinating, and the countryside (even around Shika) is really striking. Don't let the comedy of errors turn you off to a culture that is, it's true, very different from ours, but also far from boring! I went back about five years after leaving Japan and really enjoyed it as a tourist on a two week stay. I think it's hard to be in your early twenties no matter where you are! (At least it was for me. While I miss my pre-baby body, I don't miss much else from that period of uncertainty and insecurity). Anyhow, mostly just thanks for the wonderful review. I guess I'd better get to work now... Happy to answer any questions if anyone has them.

  7. This book is already a front-runner for my best of 2010! I enjoyed your thoughtful review.

  8. I love the insights you give into the book without giving anything away! I'm convinced this would be a great book club book because it's been quite polarizing. Armed with your insights, I could probably lead a nice discussion on this book. :D

    Thanks for being on the tour!


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