Thursday, March 18, 2010

book review: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

I've been eager to read If You Follow Me, the first novel by Malena Watrous since I read an interview with Curtis Sittenfeld, author of my favorite book, American Wife, in Paper Cuts, the New York Times book blog. Needless to say, I had high expectations.

If you read this blog, you know my favorite books are about so much more than their plot. Great literature transcends its characters and plot and brings greater understanding and critical thought, and If You Follow Me is that kind of great literature. It's mostly the story of Marina, who is spending her first year out of college teaching college in rural Japan. She's still dealing with her father's suicide, and her girlfriend, Carolyn, is also teaching in Japan. They're the only foreigners in a small, rural town with a nuclear power plant. They live in the only apartment available for two people.

Watrous did an amazing job of translating the experience of teaching in rural Japan to the reader. She set this novel in the town she taught English in after college. The novel opens with the first of what will be many letters informing Marina of her violations of gomi law. The Japanese have a complex system of recycling, burning and disposing of their trash on different days, in different places and with different means. Instantly, I was as dumbfounded and embarrassed as Marina was for her inevitable and unintentional rudeness and violation of law. Perhaps the greatest cultural insults are the ones we commit when we don't even think to ask, such as how to sort our garbage.

Although the novel is told from Marina's point of view, it's brilliance is in the reader's ability to see the story not only through Marina's eyes, but also from the perspectives of the other characters, major and minor, and to truly understand each subtle moment from multiple sides. Many authors use multiple narrators to introduce readers to other points of view, but Watrous weaves language barriers, cultural misunderstanding and the human emotions beautifully into a coherent whole, and Marina still has a strong enough presence to feel like a friend from the novel's first pages. It's a testament to her skill as both a writer and a storyteller that this reader could so easily and quickly understand the perspective of those who have never ventured away from this small town in rural Japan.

I love to travel (hence the nomad in nomadreader), but even I admit part of my love of travel is the ability to focus on the great experiences once you're home and tell the quirky stories of travel, good and bad. When you're abroad, there are the inevitable moments of frustration, incomprehension, embarrassment and exhaustion. So many books set in interesting places only increase my desire to visit or revisit those locations. Books make me long for places I've visited, places I've lived and places I haven't found the time or money to see yet. This book, however, is the most honest depiction of a travel experience I've ever read. It's a book that made me realize layers of my own ignorance I didn't realize existed.

I had high expectation going into this novel, but Watrous grabbed my attention on the very first page and never let me down. I simultaneously devoured it by reading in large stretches and read more slowly than I usually do to savor each word and scene.

Perhaps it's not a novel for everyone. It's not a sentimental tale of teaching English in a foreign land and bridging cultural gaps. It is, however, among the most honest and thoughtful novels I've read in a very long time. If you're a fan of language, cultural divides, and people watching, then you'll probably love it.

Rating: 5 stars (out of 5 stars)
Pages:  384
Release date: March 1, 2010
Source: I received this book from the publisher, as part of the TLC Book Tour
The contest to win my copy is over. Thank you to all who entered. Congratulations to The Little Reader!


  1. Wow! I love your passion for this book! I especially like how you said, "Great literature transcends its characters and plot and brings greater understanding and critical thought." I completely agree with that. I love your explanation of why you loved this book! Thanks for being on this tour!

  2. Wow you have made me really want to read this book! I will definitely add this to my wishlist! I love it when a blogger finds a new book that they feel so passionate about!

  3. This book sounds great; thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  4. I think I would enjoy this one since I know what it's like to live in another country.

  5. This is an amazing review!! I loved this book as well!!

  6. thank for the review, I would love this book! thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  7. Great review! This book has caught my eye lately with the TLC Book Tour, I definitely will be picking it up soon.

  8. Hey, thanks for stopping by my blog. This book was quite different for me. Not something I would have picked up on my own but reading it was an enjoyable experience. I heard Marina's voice throughout the novel and she was easy to relate to. It's hard to believe this is Watrous' first novel.


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