Reviewer Wally Wood: Wally is an editor and writer, has published three novels, Getting Oriented:A Novel about Japan, The Girl in the Photo an Death in a Family Business. He obtained his MA in creative writing in 2002 from the City University of New York and has worked with a number of authors as a ghostwriter and collaborator.
With an extensive background in a variety of business subjects, his credits include twenty-one nonfiction books. He spent twenty-five years as a trade magazine reporter and editor and has been a volunteer writing and business teacher in state and federal prisons for more than twenty years. He has finished his fourth novel and has translated a collection of Japanese short stories into English.
Author: Rowan HisayoBuchanan
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Because a friend whose taste I trust recommended Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, I wanted to like the book. And there are many things I did like about the novel. One of the two main characters is Yukiko Oyama, a Japanese girl whose parents brought her to New York (her father was "a director of the East Coast branch of Japans most successful car company"). We meet Yuki when she is in high school in 1968, suffering from being neither an all-American girl nor a proper Japanese one. Her kanji is crude, her Japanese inadequate.
She makes a best friend, Odile, who lives with her single mother, Lillian. A romance writer, Lillian is much more casual about parenting than Yuki's mother and when Yuki's parents return to Japan Yuki petitions to stay on in New York with Odile and her mother. The adults all agree, and the girls are then on largely their own. Eventually, Odile connects with a fashion photographer and takes off for Europe where she becomes a top model. Yuki is seduced by—or takes up with—Lillian's boyfriend/lover Lou and moves in with him. That Lou is perhaps twenty years older, is a frustrated sportswriter (a frustration he expresses smacking Lillian and then Yuki around), and can be violently territorial do not seem to be issues with Yuki.
Eventually, Lou decides he wants to marry someone else and evicts Yuki from his apartment. She finds shelter with Edison, a good, gentle, kind man she'd met some time earlier. He marries her, buys them a house in Connecticut, and they have a child, Jay. Unfortunately for Jay, Yuki cannot tolerate Edison's kindness, solicitude, or motherhood and she abandons Edison and Jay to live as an artist in Germany. Which brings us to Jay.
The novel follows Yuki's story and Jay's, and two chronologies, 1968-1983 and March-October 2016. When we meet Jay, he's a gallery owner, a new father, and dependent on a 17-year-old, diabetic, hairless Sphynx comfort cat he's needed since high school to keep from fainting. His kindly, gently architect father has just been killed in a car accident leaving the Connecticut house to Yuki, and Jay's wife has delivered an ultimatum: The cat goes or the baby and I go. It's a function of Jay's disability that these feel like genuine alternatives to him.
Unfortunately, to me, Yuki comes across as a masochist. She has seen Lou smack Lillian (another masochist) and does not mind getting smacked herself. She feels, I think, the pain is something real, like the pain you get from cutting yourself. But I think that's hard to make sympathetic, let alone understandable. Jay comes across as a jerk, not only for his indestructible connection to his ancietn cat but for fucking one of his gallery's artists late in his wife's pregnancy.
It's tough. Readers don't
have to like a main character to be engaged. (Who would like Humbert
Humbert?) I believe Buchanan wanted to show the harm Yuki's
abandoning infant Jay did to him, but I don't think it works.
Buchanan wanted to show Yuki's torment growing up as a young Japanese
girl in New York City, and those chapters are convincing. She wanted
to keep a reader's attention so she switches back and forth between
Yuki (written in the third person) and Jay (written in the first).
Although she labels each section with the character's name and heads
each chapter with the time it takes place, the reader is constantly
being jerked forward and back in time. It makes me wonder if putting
the chapters in strict chronological order would have helped.
All that said, I'm glad I took my friend's suggestion and read Harmless Like You. For all my quibbles, it's an interesting portrait of two people I would not have known otherwise.