If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (2010)
After graduating from college, Marina is spending a year in Japan teaching English with her girlfriend Carolyn. Despite their hopes of experiencing Japanese city life, they have been assigned to the small town of Shika. Keeping their relationship a secret, the two attempt to fit in with local life, struggling with customs and complicated rules such as those governing trash disposal.
Throughout the academic year, Marina struggles to get past her father’s suicide and to hold together her floundering relationship with Carolyn. She befriends Hiroshi, her supervisor, who writes letters to her about topics he feels uncomfortable discussing out loud, and also tries to befriend Keiko, a woman unable to admit to her son’s autism. Marina is frequently taken aback by the Japanese social customs that prevent them from openly discussing certain aspects of their lives, but of course, much goes unsaid in her own life as well.
Watrous’s descriptions of small-town Japan and its inhabitants were delightful. Her insights into Japanese culture were not only enjoyable, but integral to the novel. The most obvious theme in this book was that of the stranger in a strange land, but no less important was the theme of impermanence. Marina was in a transitional point in her life, struggling with her father’s recent death, navigating a romantic relationship with another woman for the first (and possibly only) time, and spending a finite period in another country before, presumably, returning home. Indeed, Hiroshi repeatedly referred to Marina as a temporary person and he was right in so many ways.
Many of the situations in this book were taken directly from the author’s life and she writes about them so deftly, I suppose as only one with experience can. Despite mixed editorial reviews, reader reviews of this book are overwhelmingly positive. Though it’s difficult to articulate everything I feel about it, I have to agree – I loved this book and highly recommend it.