Review: American Fuji

TITLE: American Fuji
AUTHOR: Sara Backer
PUBLICATION: 2001 by Berkley Books
FORMAT: Paperback


Gaby Stanton, an American professor living in Japan, has lost her job teaching English at Shizuyama University. (No one will tell her exactly why.) Alex Thorn, an American psychologist, is mourning his son, a Shizuyama exchange student who was killed in an accident. (No one will tell him exactly how.) Alex has come to this utterly foreign place to find the truth, and now Gaby is serving as his translator and guide. The key to mastering Japanese, she keeps telling him, is understanding what’s not being said. And in this “deft and delightful” novel, the unsaid truths about everything from work and love to illness and death cast a deafening silence-and tower in the background like Mount Fuji itself.


To be perfectly honest I had never heard of this book before I was browsing in the Dollar General store while trying to kill time. The subject of Japan immediately caught my attention. I debated whether or not I needed to buy another book since I had purchased a few not too long before, but the interesting notion of being American in Japan and the fact that it was only three dollars won out in the end. There was a time where I would have loved to go to Japan.

I confess that it’s rather refreshing to read something in the present devoid of any fantastical elements in it. I’m not saying that I would like to make a habit of it, but it’s nice to shake your normal reading fare up a bit. Even though it was published ten years ago, the problem of finding a job still seems relevant. Gaby stated that she came to Japan because the jobs she applied for in the States had 400 applicants . . . I wonder if I should be moving to Japan, haha! Yet I feel that my experience may mirror Alex and the frustrations that he encounters because my understanding of Japanese language is minimal, and I can only read a few words in kanji but a lot more Romanji as it were. I do believe this would be one instance where my understanding of a language is improved upon oral reception as opposed to the written visuals.

This novel comes across much like a mystery. Why was Gaby fired from the University? Why did a funeral service that does cremation for Japanese clients only ship a gaijin home to his confused father? Yet it also sneaks in a bit of romance, which I don’t mind. While it starts light-hearted this novel soon becomes serious, yet the tone remains the same oddly enough. It’s branded as something of a comedy, but I never really got the impression that it was apart from the jokes between the characters to lighten the mood when things begin to get a bit too serious.

I do admit that I like the characters in this book. I can totally relate to Gaby and her health issues. It is most inconvenient to have problems that pose a constant concern in your day to day life. The Brit named Lester, oh I could picture being Sean Bean! He was kind of a jerk of a character, but sometimes you find yourself liking that type in a story.

I think the best appeal of this novel for me is that it’s not an American author trying to write as Japanese, but as Americans in Japan. With my adoration of everything samurai and geisha this might seem difficult to believe. It really shows the roadblocks that a foreigner would face in a country such as that because not only does language present a problem, but the cultural understanding as well. Anime fans take note. However, it often seemed that the author was feeling bitter about Japan and its cultural biases. I couldn’t decide whether or not Japan was a wonderful place to be, or if I should be wishing that Gaby would move back to the States . . . Still I suppose that the particular area of the country where the story was taking place happened to be pretty conservative, which is something that is similar to living here. Maybe it depends upon where you are.

I found myself enjoying this book, but not in the devouring method that one sometimes associates with books that they find exceptionally good. I was perfectly satisfied with taking my time to read this at a slow and easy pace such as a couple of chapters at a time. It must seem a shock because people seem under the impression that I read so fast and so much that I must inhale the books. Remember what Aesop, our first teacher, said about a slow and steady pace. So I would recommend it to anyone who possesses an interest in Japan. And for those who don’t? Give it a try anyway because you might learn something, a little bit of Japanese at any rate. (Psst! There’s yakuza in this novel!)



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