The Strangeness of Beauty: A Novel

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9780684853628: The Strangeness of Beauty: A Novel

Shortly before World War II, Etsuko returns to Japan with her infant nephew to dwell in the foreboding samurai home of her estranged mother, where she struggles to find inner peace as the world descends into war. A first novel. 35,000 first printing. Tour.

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Review:

At first blush, Lydia Minatoya's novel The Strangeness of Beauty would seem to be pretty standard fare: three generations of Japanese women struggle to understand and love one another. Sounds like generic women's fiction, but in Minatoya's hands, it becomes something quietly distinctive. Minatoya has a taste for the in-between. In this, her first novel, mothers are not mothers, Americans are Japanese, and warriors are pacifists.

Etsuko and her sister Naomi move with their respective husbands from Kobe to Seattle in the 1920s. When Naomi dies in childbirth, the widowed Etsuko becomes the baby's surrogate mother. The two return to Japan, where the girl, Hanae, can receive the education in subtleties that is her heritage as a member of a samurai family. The young American girl finds the chores and trials of samurai life enraging. "Take sweeping the garden path with a light bamboo broom: the point isn't just to clear off debris. Designed to develop dedication and spiritual depth, the real task is in repeating the activity--morning and dusk, over and over, for decades--until she learns to leave light, flowing impressions on the soft surface earth."

Just as patiently, Etsuko and Hanae must learn the secrets of their family. There's quite a bit of familial breast-beating, sure, but it's leavened by the perspective of Etsuko, a bumbling, sweet-tempered antiheroine of a narrator. The book comes alive as the two women, trapped in the liminal state of exile, neither American nor Japanese, learn to wrest the best from both worlds. As Japan teeters on the brink of war, Etsuko and Hanae apply their samurai-warrior sense of honor to fighting for peace. Minatoya (author of the acclaimed memoir Talking to High Monks in the Snow) never settles for black or white. She always strives for that more difficult place: the gray area. --Claire Dederer

About the Author:

Lydia Minatoya's memoir, Talking to High Monks in the Snow, won numerous awards, including the PEN American Center's Jerard Fund Award for an emerging woman author, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Award, and notable-book citations from the American Library Association and the New York Public Library. Minatoya was born in Albany, New York. After earning a doctorate in counseling and psychology from the University of Maryland, she spent two years teaching at universities in Japan and China. She now lives in Seattle with her husband and two young children, This is her first novel.

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