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