Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Buddha In the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic
by Julie Otsuka
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
129 pages
source: borrowed

Publisher's Synopsis:
Julie Otsuka’s long awaited follow-up to When the Emperor Was Divine is a tour de force of economy and precision, a novel that tells the story of a group of young women brought over from Japan to San Francisco as ‘picture brides’ nearly a century ago.

In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces their extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war.

In language that has the force and the fury of poetry, Julie Otsuka has written a singularly spellbinding novel about the American dream.

One word review:  Meh

And to elaborate: 
The Buddha in the Attic provides an insightful look into the difficult lives of Japanese 'picture brides' in the early 20th century. As with her earlier novel, When The Emperor Was Divine, Otsuka's language is spare and powerful. This time though, while it serves to accentuate her point, it struck me as sing-song and repetitive.
"One of us blamed them for everything and wished that they were dead. One us us blamed them for everything and wished that she were dead. Others of us learned to live without thinking of them at all. We threw ourselves into our work and became obsessed with the thoughts of pulling one more weed. We put away our mirrors. We stopped combing our hair. We forgot about makeup. Whenever I powder my nose it looks just like frost on a mountain. We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. We stopped writing home to our mothers. We lost weight and grew thin. We stopped bleeding. We stopped dreaming. We stopped wanting. We simply worked, that was all...."  (page 36-37)
Several bloggers loved this novel but, had it been much longer, I may not have finished.

Violet had a very different reaction and I urge you to read her review before deciding against this novel.

My rating:


  1. Love your one word review! But what a pity - the cover is so beautiful, and you would think a story about picture brides would have so much potential!

  2. Ooh, just a "meh"? I love the cover and just from the synopsis I have this on my "wishlist" but now I'm not so sure. Thanks for your honest opinion.

  3. Boo, too bad -- I've heard some good things about this one so I appreciate your counter opinion!

  4. The plot sounds so interesting, it's a shame you didn't like it as much as you thought you would. I still think I will give it a go one day ...

  5. Rhapsodyinbooks - Definitely a pity. I love the cover, too.

    Kaye - If the quote appeals to you, then go ahead and give it a try. It's short so even if you don't love it, you haven't invested a huge amount of time.

    Audra - Lots of bloggers loved this... am almost wondering if it was just my mood. I did like (not love) her first book.

    Sam - I love the idea behind the book (and the cover), but the writing style just didn't appeal. Will be curious to hear what you think of it.

  6. Everyone else seems to love this book so it is interesting to read the other side of the coin. The quote you've provided is a very good illustration of your point - that repitition would annoy me too. I still plan to give this a try as the subject matter intrigues me. Hopefully I'll be able to enjoy it more than you did.

  7. I'd give it just slightly above a meh. Most of my disappointment was because I felt it was too similar to When the Emperor Was Divine.

  8. Jackie - I'll be very interested to hear what you think of this. The subject mater is indeed compelling, but the writing fell flat (at least for me). Not sure how much to attribute to my stressed pre-holiday mood though... wonder if I'd have a different reaction in January.

    Softdrink - It was similar to When the Emperor Was Divine and that may have been part of my problem, too. At least with the first book her style was fresh and new...

  9. Too bad this book didn't work for you! I read and loved it. Her writing is different from what I'm used to. Hope your next read is better.

  10. I would have picked this one up based on the cover alone but I've decided that life is too short for "meh" books. Always a bummer when you've enjoyed previous works.

  11. The "meh" told me all I needed to know, especially coming from you!

  12. I've seen this book around but have no idea what it's about or how good it is. Thanks for a detailed and succinct review. The paragraph you quoted sounds like the author is trying to play with rhythmic cadences, like poetry. But then again, as you said, it could also mean redundancy. I'm in a Japanese Reading Challenge this year and it ends Jan. 2012, I still haven't read my book, which is Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain. So, I'll be focusing on that in the next little while. Have you read it?


  13. Vasilly - I wonder if this would have worked better if I'd been more relaxed. I did enjoy her first book though.

    Trish - The cover was actually the best thing about the book ;-)

    Staci - I almost just left the review at 'meh', but decided I really needed to add a bit more.

    Arti - Kawabata has been on my 'to read' list for quite some time. Will be anxious to hear what you think of The Sound of the Mountain. The Buddha in the Attic did have a very lyrical flow, but I just wasn't in the mood to appreciate it, I guess. Didn't join the Japanese Reading Challenge this year, but still hope to read The Makioka Sisters this winter.


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