Jan 27, 2012

Plum Wine Review

Plum Wine by Angela Davis-Gardner is a historical novel set in Vietnam Era Japan. Like the author once was, the main character, Barbara, is an English teacher at a Japanese university. An interesting aspect of the main character's situation is that she speaks very little Japanese. I could not imagine living in another country and not speaking their language, especially in the predigital age. I was lucky enough to share my reading experience with Carrie at Books and Movies after she read a post where I listed some books I wanted to try and read and she shared she had Plum Wine to read as well.

As the story begins, a wine chest is being delivered to Barbara that belonged to her friend Michi. Michi has recently passed away and left this wine and chest behind. Though Barbara loves the gift she isn't entirely sure why she received it. One of the main themes in the book is the revelation of different layers of meaning.  After the chest had been delivered, Barbara looks around the room. "It was strange, she thought. how the placement of objects affected them. It was true for people too. She herself had never felt accurately place, had never taken root anywhere" (12). This aspect of Barbara's personality becomes the backdrop on which the story is built.  I particularly loved this passage and thought it was a beautiful glimpse into Barbara's psyche.  Part pf this lack of rooting is what cultivated the friendship between Michi and Barbara.

I liked seeing Japanese culture through the eyes of Barbara; the American perspective helped high light more intensely the differences between the two cultures. In this new and different place Michi seemed to be the most welcoming person Barbara had found. Later in the story we find that Barbara almost considers Michi like a mother. The relationships between mother and daughter is one of the major thematic overlays in the books. At times I think it may have been a little heavy heavy handed. I felt a very overt layering of story lines, each of varying complexity, pile up in a haphazard way. All of these story lines are supposed to reflect again on Barbara's place in the world and playing off the concept of going to Japanese as a way to fill the need to find her own mother, or some memory of her (even though she is very much alive), within the landscape of this foreign world.

Since reading Cindy Pon's Silver Phoenix I have been eager to read more books about and inspired by Asian culture. I noticed that I had a gap in my cultural knowledge when it came to this area of the world and I quickly wanted to rectify it. Plum Wine has definitely been a good start in fulfilling that desire. It may not be the best or first choice but I like to take a meandering way through fiction; even if this story wasn't the most informative or the most well written, I really enjoyed it. I also found a mythology that became of particular interest. The Kitsune is a fox trickster archetype in Asian myths. Introduction to this character type may have been the most rewarding gift Plum Wine had to give me. For more on the Kitsune, please see my previous post.

Both Carrie and I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book. I particularly liked the references to literature and Barbara's classroom discussions. If the book had more of the classroom experiences woven through it Carrie and I would have been a lot more satisfied with the way the story went and the quality of the storytelling. But the whole second half of the book was a bit of a miss for both of us. We had similar complaints and similar desires for what we wished was different. I loved the romantic story line in Plum Wine but it did get to a point where it was a little repetitive and clunky. If the romance had been balanced out by more of Barbara's life, I think there would have been a more complete story told. Yes still the book seemed to win me over in a way it didn't for Carrie. This was probably a mix of my exposure to the Kitsune myth and how strong my desire was to connect with Asian related books.

Plum Wine feels like a coming of age story, but there were just too many pieces in the story for Barbara's personal journey to shine through. I almost appreciate this book for what I wish it was rather than what it ended up being. Carrie and I both would have enjoyed the books more if there was less piling up of back stories that didn't seem to have any resolve in Barbara's life or place in the world. Overall though, I would recommend this book. It really depends of what you are hoping to get out of it, but it was an enjoyable book and maybe would have been better as a one sitting kind of read. Breaking it up definitely didn't do the narrative any favors because it only high lighted some of the flaws in the narrative.

For more thoughts on this book please check out Carrie's post. I want to thank her again for reading this with me, it was a really enjoyable experience sharing this book with her, even if we didn't both love the book.


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