I just finished American Woman by Susan Choi, and I'm still mulling it over. I found Choi's writing quite beautiful, but there are a few things that bother me.
In the book, Choi delivers a fictional story that combines many events that really happened, such as Patty Hearst's kidnapping, conversion to activist/terrorist, and capture. But the Pauline/Patty character isn't the main character of the story. Jenny Shimata, a 25-year-old Japanese-American, is wanted by the federal government for setting explosives in government buildings as a form of protest against the Vietnam War. Approached by a former colleague/fellow radical, Jenny agrees to watch three fugitives. One of the fugitives is Pauline, the famous girl who was kidnapped because she is the daughter of a very wealthy family. Jenny is drawn to Pauline's story, but I wasn't sure why. I also didn't understand her decision to help the three fugitives in the beginning. Their cause was not her cause--she just felt a connection because of what she heard on the radio? That's not much to go on. Many people in the country were caught up in by Patty Hearst's story and followed the events closely, but that's not the same as throwing your lot in with them. Jenny's life as a fugitive seems to have changed her, but we didn't know her before, so it's hard for the reader to judge.
Jenny's an interesting choice for the main character--her character seemed to assess everything dispassionately. She alludes to the rage (near the end) that inspired many of her admittedly bad life choices, but as the reader of her story, I didn't feel her rage.
I didn't truly like any of the characters in the book, but I wanted to like Jenny, and I couldn't.
Jenny has realizations that the things she did were wrong, but they seem like ruminations rather than revelations. It wasn't enough for me. Her realizations, in retrospect, that the bombings she had participated in were wrong seemed to lack convinction--her supposed rage led her to participate in bombing government buildings to protest the war. Instead, her realizations seem to center on the fact that it was all for nothing--none of the things that they did affected anything, more so than on examining her actions. And she didn't seem to come out on the other side of all this any the wiser or to be able to put what she's ultimately realized in anything other than her personal survival. Why does Choi tell us this story through Jenny?
Jenny's connection to Pauline was also hard to understand. She knows all along that it will end, but when it does, she doesn't seem to feel anything. It all feels so inevitable. I think that the book is slim on dialogue and heavy on description and that flattens the emotional appeal.
We never truly understand Pauline, just as people didn't and don't understand Patty Hearst, particularly when she became Tania, so in that sense, Choi's description of this rather surreal world reflected real life.
Choi also seemed torn by what story she ultimately wanted to tell. Jenny's father and his interment during World War II had a profound effect on Jenny's life. Throughout the book, Jenny and her father are separate, and I wanted to see them reconcile. I think that subplot could have been the main plot of the book to great effect, so when Choi chooses to make it secondary to everything else, I wonder why. Why show us this? It almost felt like Choi told us this elaborate tale to slip in a history lesson on the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the war. Jenny's father's description of things, from the black plastic covering the broken window from the brick to taking his daughter to Japan because of his anger, had more emotion to it than the rest of the book. By taking her father to the reunion at the end, was she acknowledging that she knows that everything stemmed from that? If so, what does that mean for her and for him?
If that's what Choi truly wanted to explore, then this story could have had nothing to do with Pauline (aka Patty Hearst) at all and been effective.
Choi didn't make it easy for me to connect the dots.