This novel uses a story about three generations of women to explore Japanese culture and its differences from Western culture. Using the three perspectives of the grandmother (born and lived in Japan), the mother (born in Japan but exposed to Western culture), and the daughter (born and raised in the USA) the book explores the differences in culture viewed from the inside looking out and from the outside looking in. The story is filled with unanswered questions--the mother never learns who her father is, and the daughter is told that her mother is dead but can’t get clear answers to where she is buried. It is the daughter’s premonitions that lead her to travel to Japan to seek answers. Will her questions be answered? You’ll need to read the book to find out.
I disagreed with many of the editorial reviews of the book that say that the best part of the book is the first part. I thought the early part of the story was a fairly flat coming-of-age narrative. It wasn’t until the first person narrative by the daughter later in the book that I felt like the story was getting interesting. I wanted to know what had happened to the mother. The questions kept getting piled up until near the end we learn some of the answers. The daughter never learned to speak the Japanese language so her trip to Japan came close to being that of a typical American tourist.
I thought it was a good book. It’s an informal way to learn about Japanese culture, their burial customs in particular. Toward the end of the book the differences between Shinto and Buddhist practices are described. Along the way there are many informal differences in cultural attitudes that are mentioned such as how one should use the hands to point when explaining directions. This book also describes the world of buying, selling, and (in some cases) stealing oriental antiques. Parts of the story take place in Japan, Paris and San Francisco, so it has a bit of an international flavor.