American Fuji by Sara Backer
(Putnam, $24.95, G) ISBN 0-399-14691-1
****
For an interesting change of pace from romance novels, consider American Fuji, an engaging novel of two Americans' experience in modern Japan. Author Sara Backer was the first female American to serve as visiting English professor at Japan's Shizuoka University, so her observations are no doubt authentic.

Alex Thorn visits Japan to learn how and why his son, Cody, died while he was an exchange student at Shizuoka University. Cody's body had been shipped to Alex in Seattle by the "Gone With the Wind' funeral company, with a bill but no note of explanation. In a gruesome twist, Cody's heart was missing, as if it had been harvested for transplant. How did Cody die, and why was the heart taken from a young man who, as a practicing Buddhist, had explicitly stated that he didn't wish to donate his organs? Alex's search leads him to the lone American working for Gone with the Wind, Gaby Stanton.

Ironically, Gaby was once a professor at Shizuoka University. But after five years in Japan, she was fired without any warning or explanation. With her low status as an unmarried American female, the only position she could find was salesperson for this "fantasy funeral" business. Gaby listens to Alex's story, but claims that someone must have forged Gone With the Wind's identification on the bill Alex received; the company has a policy of refusing to provide services to Americans. She feels sorry for Alex, however, because of his grief and because of his obvious ignorance of Japanese language or culture, so she agrees to help him.

Answers aren't always easy to come by in Japan, where, as Gaby tells Alex, you have to listen to what is not said as much as what is said. Alex's direct, confrontational approach gets him nowhere, so Gaby has to use everything she has learned about Japan to find out the truth. Along the way, Gaby and Alex realize they are attracted to each other, but there's little future for a self-professed loner with a chronic, embarrassing health condition and a bitter psychotherapist who wrote a book entitled Why Love Fails. Yet they eventually realize that unraveling the mystery of Cody's death may tie them even closer.

American Fuji starts slowly, but hooks the reader within the first hundred pages, as the pieces of the puzzle slowly come together. Along the way, the reader is treated to a rare inside view of Japanese life. Even though it is a modern industrial nation, Japanese habits and customs are totally different from their American counterparts. As a frustrated Alex says at one point, "I don't even know how to throw trash away in this country!" While there is much to admire about the country, you can't help being horrified at the antiquated, sexist views towards women that are still held; Gaby can't even get surgery approved for her health problem without a husband.

Yet despite these differences that are abhorrent to many Americans, the Japanese characters in the novel are diverse and fascinating. Cody's university sponsor, a professor and priest, represents the traditional Japanese faction that scorns American gaijin. But Gaby's co-worker, Rie, is willing to push the limits of the society to help Gaby. And Gaby's boss, Mr. Eguchi, is a dynamic entrepreneur who has climbed his way up from the lower class, not without a few ethical compromises, to become a powerful businessman. Unfortunately, his English is limited to Beatles song lyrics, but he manages to get his point across to Alex, in the novel's most amusing scenes.

The two middle-aged American lead characters are wounded but sympathetic. It's hard to understand why Gaby would stay so long in a country where it is obvious she will always be an outsider, but she's comfortable with that role, because her illness has always limited her social opportunities. Alex, estranged from his ex-wife and son, is making a belated effort to connect with Cody, albeit in a totally alien environment.

The book's back cover calls American Fuji "an exuberantly funny tale." I'd have to disagree with that assessment - the humor is subtle, and it's combined with a great deal of poignancy. But by the book's final scene, at the summit of the venerated Mt. Fuji, both Alex and Gaby have made a new peace with their inner demons. Romance fans should be warned that their relationship remains largely unresolved.

Readers looking for a different sort of novel will appreciate this unique story that is equal parts mystery, understated romance and socio-cultural commentary.

Irrelevant Postscript: For those fellow Iron Chef television fans who wonder why the only females on the judging panel are tittering brainless actresses, read American Fuji to gain some insight about the lack of options for Japanese women.

--Susan Scribner


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