by Sara Backer
“Mount Fuji was mostly invisible n the summer, but on clear days she could see its grand and graceful silhouette dominating the northern sky. White herons gathered in the river upstream from laundry suds pouring out of a city grate, and hydrangeas bloomed on the banks, dropping blue and lavender petals over soda cans and bento cartons littered beside the asphalt.” ― Sara Backer, American Fuji
The Japanese have a saying according to Sara Backer, "expect the unexpected". Her entertaining novel demonstrates this and provides a lesson in the experience of living in Japan through her clearly delineated characters, especially Gaby Stanton and Alex Thorn. Gaby Stanton, a 36-year-old expatriate in her fifth year of teaching English at a small Japanese university, is peremptorily fired. No explanation furnished. No appeal possible. Unexpectedly, then, she lands a job at a company called Gone With the Wind, owned and operated by one Mr. Eguchi, cool, shrewd, and, it turns out, yakuza-connected (read: mafia). She's to sell fantasy funerals, suddenly a hot status symbol among affluent Japanese. For a fix on the degree of affluence, Eguchi counsels the ever-reliable toilet test whenever Gaby makes a house call: “Toilets tell truth about people,” he insists. Alex Thorn is a psychologist and author of Why Love Fails, a self-help book that developed out of his own bitter experience. Alex is in Japan to investigate the presumably accidental death of his college-aged son, a death surrounded by mysterious circumstances.
The story is a sort of dual mystery at its core with Alex pursuing details about his son's accidental death and with Gaby trying to find out what she should do with her life since her academic career has been derailed. When their paths cross they slowly begin to share their individual mysteries with consequences that make this book better than the average tale of an American in Japan. The owner, Mr. Eguchi, is just one of several exotic Japanese that Alex encounters during his stay in Japan. Along with Gaby's other American friends, coworkers, a couple of students and encounters with what seems like the Japanese mob the characters provide interest. In spite of being a bit longer than required, there is enough mystery, romance, and humor in this novel to make it a truly unexpected entertainment.
American Fuji by Sara Backer. Berkley Books, 2009 (2001)