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The Strangeness of Beauty

Author:Lydia Minatoya
Publisher:Simon & Schuster

The Strangeness of Beauty begins as a quietly self-reflective 'autobiography' of an Japanese expatriate living in 1920s Seattle, and quickly expands its scope to three generations of a Japanese matriarchy living in Kobe under the shadow of World War II.

What makes the novel so scintillating is Minatoya's exquisite, intelligent voice. By viewing Japan through the prism of an aging samurai grandmother, her estranged yet buoyant widow daughter, and the haughty American-born grandchild, Minatoya ushers in an unforgettable world of resilient characters trodding along rough personal paths toward self-definition and growth.

Minatoya's skill at unveiling minute details simultaneously evokes a tangible sense of place and elevates the story into symbolic dimensions. Granddaughter Hanae's dead mother has sewn her countless kimonos; every year her father in Seattle sends the same Western garments in larger sizes. “But each morning as she puts on layer after layer of her parents' providence . . . Hanae develops a vague but certain knowledge of love. That it's excessive and insensible. That it's inconvenient and imperiling. That it wraps around you. As essential as skin.”

Minatoya resorts to rather straightforward explanations of Japanese culture when describing the transformatory forces of a society in flux. These observations, however skillful, impart the novel with a tour-guide quality. This cross-cultural self-consciousness so prevalent in Asian-American fiction is entirely absent in say, Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto's Kitchen. Thankfully, the primary cast is far too well-rendered to be effected by Minatoya's sociological bent.

Humor, insight, and a vivid characterizations prevent The Strangeness of Beauty from cultural cliches and make the book a pleasure to read, a portrait of surprising beauty in a foreign place made deliciously real.