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Friday, October 24th, 2003


American Woman

by Susan Choi

A review by Laura Miller

Near the end of American Woman, a new novel by Susan Choi, the book's central character, Jenny Shimada, gets out of prison after serving a two-year sentence for her involvement in crimes committed by a radical group and rents a room in a house in Berkeley, Calif. It's the late '70s, and her new roommates, "21- and 23-year-olds, all young graduate students or searchers," are, she imagines, "the sort of people who, had they been born just a few years sooner, would have met the world at a sharply different angle, done things with no hesitation that now, in their remarkably altered world, would seem wild, laborious, frightening." That generation will pass and then another and another until finally Susan Choi's generation will arrive in town, people who don't remember, or weren't even born yet, when places like Berkeley were full of firebrands who believed that "nothing better seized attention than violence and that the rightness of theirs would be obvious, dedicated as it was to saving lives."

Perhaps it's the passing years that have made novels like American Woman and documentaries like The Weather Underground so fascinating; there's enough distance to make the reckless political passions of that time seem exciting and even exotic, rather than frightening. But when American Woman begins, in 1974, even Jenny herself has begun to lose faith in her old militance. She's on the lam, hiding out in upstate New York, sending forlorn coded letters through an intermediary to her lover, Will, who's in prison. The two of them used to plant bombs in government buildings, always at night, when the buildings were deserted, never hurting anyone. He got caught; she didn't, thanks to an old friend who still carries a bit of a torch for her.

That old friend tracks Jenny down and persuades her to help him shelter three fugitives, two surviving members of a cadre of revolutionaries who have kidnapped a newspaper heiress, as well as the heiress herself, Pauline, a convert to the cause. The rest of the cadre has been killed in a fiery shootout in California, and the entire nation is searching for the threesome, transfixed by the story of a rich girl turned radical outlaw. These events, of course, are based on the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army and the year Hearst spent underground with SLA members Bill and Emily Harris. A Japanese-American painter, Wendy Yoshimura, is clearly the real-life inspiration for Jenny Shimada, the estranged daughter of a man embittered by his internment in Manzanar during World War II.

But American Woman isn't merely a fictional retelling of the Hearst case. Instead, it's that rarest of creations, a political novel that gives equal weight to its characters' inner and outer lives. The very conscience that prompted Jenny to extreme acts in protest of the Vietnam War begins to trouble her when it comes to her charges. The cadre are dangerous because they are, as she once was, naive enough to take rash action, "undisciplined, and terrified, and aflame with self-pity." They'd be funny, with their talk of carrying on their delusional "armed struggle" against the police and their solemn classification of newsmagazine articles as "intelligence," if they didn't tend to leave bodies in their wake. At 25, only a few years older than these fiery "warriors," Jenny feels vastly more experienced and far less certain.

Yet Jenny is also profoundly lonely, as only someone who has been living an entirely false life can be. With the fugitives, she can go by her real name among people who know her true history. And in Pauline, daughter of privilege, the cadre's great prize and yet never allowed to feel she entirely belongs, Jenny believes she's found someone to care for, and perhaps befriend. "We spend so much time hashing out the big forces that control our lives," one of Jenny's old comrades tells her, "but then sometimes I think you don't notice the personal things. All the messy emotional things. Those control our lives too."

Jenny's psychic odyssey -- a parallel in some ways to Pauline's -- provides a powerful undertow to the often thrillerlike situations in American Woman: the growing tension in the farmhouse hideout, a flight across country, the perils of living "underground." This is a masterfully plotted book, but Jenny is driven by her own interior quandaries, not the imperatives of storytelling. American Woman feels organic, not constructed; it's a mature, fully realized work (though only Choi's second novel) that does everything a novel should do and seldom does in this day and age. It shows us the ways that character can be destiny, the big and the little forces that control our lives, the possibility that our worst choices will ultimately seem worth it, and the strange and circuitous paths by which a soul as lost as Jenny Shimada's can find its way home.

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