Title: Plum Wine
Author: Angela Davis-Gardner
Genre: Historical fiction, multicultural fiction
Publisher: Dial Trade Paperbacks
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Source: Print copy from my personal library
First line: The chest arrived on a gray afternoon in late January, three weeks after Michi-san’s death.
Barbara is an American woman teaching English in Japan during the Vietnam War. She is a stranger to the culture, the language, the people. Her neighbor and fellow teacher, Michi-san, is the only one to make her feel welcome and help cross the cultural divide. When Michi dies, Barbara is bereft – and surprised to discover that Michi has left her a bequest: a tansu chest filled with bottles of homemade plum wine. Each bottle is wrapped in paper – and the papers are covered with elegant Japanese calligraphy. There is one bottle of wine, one sheet of paper, per year – going back twenty years. Barbara, unable to read the Japanese, turns to Seiji, a mysterious young man and friend of Michi’s. As they work together to translate Michi’s legacy, they are drawn together – but is Seiji telling her everything the parchments contain, or is he protecting a secret of his own?
Why is it so hard to write a review of a book that I merely “liked?” If I love a book, I have no problem writing the review. If I hate it, chances are I didn’t finish it. But if I thought it was just “okay” – that’s when I’m stumped.
I truly wanted to love Plum Wine. When I bought it a few years ago, I stood in the aisle of the bookstore, absorbed in the first chapter, and I was excited to read it. But then other books crowded in, and I didn’t get to it until now. Megan at Posey Sessions mentioned that this was one of the books she wanted to read in the new year, and so we decided to read it together and have Twitter discussions. Those discussions – and knowing that Megan was reading along with me – definitely increased my enjoyment with the book, and also made me take the time to articulate why it wasn’t working all that well for me.
There were sections of this book that were written beautifully, and I appreciated the way the author dealt with the cultural differences between Barbara and the Japanese people among whom she was living and working. I’d be interested in knowing if the cultural divide is still as wide now as it apparently was during the Vietnam War era. The customs and culture were fascinating – the tea ceremony, the plum wine, the Kitsune (the fox myths) – all of these added to the picture of a people steeped in history and tradition.
My favorite sections of the book by far were the interactions between Barbara and her students. It was interesting to see the dilemmas they were facing, things like arranged marriage or being considered “untouchable” for working as a mortician, especially considering that the time period was only 50 years ago. The story that Barbara uncovers while reading Michi’s writing is also intriguing – and gives the reader a lot of insight into what life was like for Hiroshima survivors.
Unfortunately, the writing was very uneven. While there were some beautiful passages, there were other sections – especially dialogue – that were awkward and didn’t flow. In many scenes, the dialogue seemed very stilted. And the romance between Barbara and Seiji, which becomes a main focus of the story, didn’t work for me at all. It was portrayed as a great passion, with Barbara’s character continually talking about how drawn she was to Seiji, how much she wanted to be with him – and yet his character did not work as the object of that much passionate obsession. He was a very unlikable character, and even though I realized he had a reason for being emotionally handicapped, I couldn’t find anything to care about in the romance between the two.
Megan and I had some interesting discussions about the book on Twitter. She had some of the same reservations as I did about the book, but she ended up liking it much more than I did, so you’ll definitely want to click over to her review and read her thoughts. This is definitely the case of a book that some of you will probably love – it just wasn’t a great read for me.
Megan was very interested in the Kitsune, or fox myths, that play a big role in the book – especially in Michi’s family history. She was inspired to do some research and digging, and has written a fascinating post on the myths, their history, and other sources of information.