Synopses & Reviews
From the author of the contemporary classic When the Emperor Was Divine
("To watch Emperor catching on with teachers and students in vast numbers is to grasp what must have happened at the outset for novels like Lord of the Flies
or To Kill a Mockingbird
" — the New York Times
), a tour de force about a group of women brought from Japan to San Francisco in the early 1900s as mail-order brides.
In six unforgettable, incantatory sections, the novel traces their new lives as "picture brides": the arduous voyage by boat, where the girls trade photos of their husbands and imagine uncertain futures in an unknown land...their arrival in San Francisco and the tremulous first nights with their new husbands...backbreaking toil as migrant workers in the fields and in the homes of white women...the struggle to learn a new language and culture...giving birth and raising children who come to reject their heritage....and, finally, the arrival of war, and the agonizing prospect of their internment.
Once again Julie Otsuka has written a spellbinding novel about identity and loyalty, and what it means to be an American in uncertain times.
"In the early 1900s, numerous Japanese mail order brides came to America seeking better lives. Otsuka's (When the Emperor was Divine) latest novel paints a delicate, heartbreaking portrait of these women. Using a collective first-person narrator ('On the boat we were mostly virgins.'), Otsuka looks at the experiences of these 'picture brides,' organizing their stories into themes which include: their arrival in America; their first nights with their husbands; their interactions with white people; their children; and finally, the experience of World War II. Each section is beautifully rendered, a delicate amalgam of contrasting and complementary experiences. Readers will instantly empathize with these unnamed women as they adjust to American culture, a remarkable achievement considering Otsuka's use of the collective voice. Otsuka's prose is precise and rich with imagery. Readers will be inspired to draw their own parallels between the experiences of these women and the modern experience of immigration. By the time readers realize that the story is headed toward the internment of the Japanese, they are hopelessly engaged and will finish this exceptional book profoundly moved." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Haunting and intimate...Otsuka tracts the grace and strength at the core of immigrant (and female) survival and, with exquisite care, makes us rethink the heartbreak of eternal hope." Susanna Sonnenberg, More
"In Julie Otsuka's latest novel, The Buddha in the Attic
, the author brazenly writes in hundreds of voices that rise up into one collective cry of sorrow, loneliness and confusion....Otsuka winds a thread of despair throughout the book, haunting the reader at every chapter. For every step forward there are two steps back for these women, who did their best to build a life and a home in a country that was largely unsympathetic to their isolation." Meganne Fabrega, The Star Tribune
(Read the entire Star Tribune review
About the Author
Julie Otsuka was born and raised in California. She is a graduate of Yale University and received her M.F.A. from Columbia University. She lives in New York City.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discuss of Julie Ostuka's The Buddha in the Attic. In this exquisite new novel, Ostuka explores the fate of a group of picture brides brought from Japan to San Francisco in the early 1900s.
1. The Buddha in the Attic
is narrated in the first person plural, i.e., told from the point of view of a group of women rather than an individual. Discuss the impact of this narrative decision on your reading experience. Why do you think the author made the choice to tell the story from this perspective?
2. Why is the novel called The Buddha in the Attic? To what does the title refer?
3. The novel opens with the women on the boat traveling from Japan to San Francisco. What does Otsuka tell us is “the first thing [they] did,” and what does this suggest about the trajectories of their lives?
4. What are the women’s expectations about America? What are their fears? Why are they convinced that “it was better to marry a stranger in America than grow old with a farmer from the village”?
5. Discuss Otsuka’s use of italics in the novel. What are these shifts in typography meant to connote? How do they add to our knowledge of the women as individuals?
6. Otsuka tells us that the last words spoken by the women’s mothers still ring in their ears: “You will see: women are weak, but mothers are strong.” What does this mean, and how does the novel bear this out?
7. In the final sentence of “First Night,” Otsuka writes, “They took us swiftly, repeatedly, all throughout the night, and in the morning when we woke we were theirs.” Discuss the women’s first nights with their new husbands. Are there particular images you found especially powerful? How did you feel reading this short chapter?
8. Why was the first word of English the women were taught “water” ?
9. In the section entitled “Whites,” Otsuka describes several acts of kindness and compassion on the part of the women’s husbands. In what ways were the husbands useful to them or unexpectedly gentle with them in these early days? How does this reflect the complexity of their relationships?
10. What are the women’s lives like in these early months in America? How do their experiences and challenges differ from what they had been led to expect? How are they perceived by their husbands? By their employers? Discuss the disparity between the women’s understanding of their role in the American economy and what Otsuka suggests is the American perception of the Japanese women’s power.
11. Later in this section, the women ask themselves, “Is there any tribe more savage than the Americans?” What occasions this question? What does the author think? What do you think?
12. Discuss the passage on p. 37 that begins, “We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. . . . I fear my soul has died. . . . And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared.” What does Otsuka mean by “disappeared”? What is she suggesting about their spiritual lives, their inner selves? Do the women reappear in this sense in the course of the novel? When?
13. Throughout the novel, Otsuka uses the phrase “One of us…” Why? What is the effect of this shift in point of view? What does Otsuka achieve through this subtle adjustment?
14. Otsuka writes, “They gave us new names. They called us Helen and Lily. They called us Margaret. They called us Pearl.” Discuss how this mirrors the names taken by the women’s children later in the novel.
15. Discuss the complexities and nuances of the relationship between the Japanese women and the white women. Was it strictly an employer/employee relationship, or something more?
16. What is J-town? Why do the women choose J-town over any attempt to return home?
17. The section called “Babies” is just six pages long but strikes with unique force. What was your reaction to the experiences of the women in childbirth? Take a close look at the last six sentences of the chapter, with a particular emphasis on the very last sentence. On what note does Otsuka end the chapter, and why? What does that last sentence reveal about Otsuka’s ideas about the future and about the past?
18. “One by one all the old words we had taught them began to disappear from their heads,” Otsuka writes of the women’s children. Discuss the significance of names and naming in The Buddha in the Attic. What does it mean for these children to reject their mother’s language? What point is Otsuka making about cultural inheritance?
19. How do the the dreams of the children differ from the dreams of their mothers?
20. Why do the women feel closer to their husbands than ever before in the section entitled “Traitors”?
21. How is the structure of the penultimate section, called “Last Day,” different from the structure of all the sections that precede it? Why do you think Otsuka chose to set it apart?
22. Who narrates the novel’s final section, “A Disappearance”? Why? What is the impact of this dramatic shift?
23. Discuss themes of guilt, shame, and forgiveness in The Buddha in the Attic.