BY SARA BACKERHARD
COVER: G.P. PUTNAM’S SONS, MARCH 2001
373 PAGES. ISBN 0-399-14691-1
PAPERBACK: BERKELEY PUBLISHING GROUP, MARCH 2002
416 PAGES. ISBN 0-425-18336-X
Sara Backer’s first book, American Fuji, can be read on three overlapping levels. First, it is an enjoyable, often humorous mystery novel tinged with romantic tension. Second, it is a witty, even erudite social commentary on Japanese society, expatriate life, and intercultural relations. Third, American Fuji is conceptually about human nature, especially the ability and adaptability of people who are categorized as outside the mainstream to find their niche in society—and for some to find themselves.
The story line revolves around two protagonists, Gabriella Stanton and Alexander Thorn, and takes place mostly in Shizuoka, with Mt. Fuji as a constant background presence. (note 1) Gabriella (Gaby), still bitter over being fired from her position as an English professor at Shizuyama University nearly a year earlier, sells fantasy funerals for a company called Gone With The Wind, or Cone Whizzer Window, as pronounced by Gaby’s co-worker, Rie. Originally from Portland, Oregon, Gaby has lived in Japan for five years and prefers to remain despite the hassles of being a gaijin (“outside person”) and a single woman in a paternalisitic society. (note 2) She also has ulcerative colitis, a chronic, “shameful” illness she tries to conceal from others. (note 3) Alexander Thorn, psychologist, author of a self-help book titled Why Love Fails, and divorced, is visiting Japan for the first time. His son Cody, a student at Shizuyama University, died in a motorcycle accident one year earlier, and Alex is on an emotional quest to uncover more information about his son’s tragic death. As mysterious connections emerge between Alex’s quest and Gaby’s former and current employers, the two hesitatingly begin to work together to find the answers.
1. Shizuoka is approximately halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto on the Pacific Ocean side of Honshu Island. Compared to Japan’s biggest cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka, Shizuoka is a relatively conservative city.
2. After graduating from Oregon State University and then from the creative writing program at University of California, Davis, Sara Backer spent three years as a visiting English professor at Shizuoka University. She has also published poems and short stories.
3. One of the illnesses classified as inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD