Review: American Woman by Susan Choi

In fairly typical fashion, I think, I became obsessed by the 60’s era as a teen. And I’ve really never grown out of it. In fact, my biggest disappointment in life is not having been born until the 70’s started. The counterculture, political and social change that came about, and most of all, of course, the music, make it a magical time that I wish I could have experienced. I tried to relive it all by indulging in as much of that stuff as possible myself.

I read everything I could find about everyone who had been important and influential back then. And at some point, inevitably, I stumbled across the story of Patty Hearst and the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army). It was a fascinating tale, so bizarre it was hard to believe it could possibly be true. I read as many articles as I could find to get more information, and I think even a book called The Patty Hearst Story, or something like that. But as I recall, most of what was published put a biased slant on the story, just wanting to paint it as a “girl gone wrong who has realized and regrets the error of her ways” type of story. And of course, none of it was her fault. She was kidnapped and brainwashed. Stockholm Syndrome and all that. But I always felt like there had to be more to the story and that nobody was ever telling the real truth, not even her.

Although this book was first published, I believe, in 2003 (or possibly even earlier) I didn’t discover it until recently. It was the title, American Woman, shared by a well-known song of the era, that first drew me in. When I read the blurb of what it was about, I wasn’t sure I would be interested. But as soon as I got into the story and realized it was a fictionalized account of the Patty Hearst affair, I was hooked. And the beautifully written prose certainly kept me enthralled. It’s a long book, and I literally couldn’t put it down until I made it to the end, and then was so sad to give it up.

The book never comes out and says that it is about Patty Hearst. The names have been changed, and probably some of the less-important details. But it’s the same story, make no mistake about it. The beauty of this book is that it doesn’t just report the facts of what happened. In fact, that really doesn’t enter into the story at all, other than as background to make sense of where it picks up. The book is about what happens after the big police shoot-out with the SLA, to Patty and the only other two survivors. But it isn’t even really about them. It’s more about the peripheral people to the action who get unwittingly caught up in aiding and abetting them afterwards. Specifically, it is mainly told from the viewpoint of one woman, Jenny Shimada, who is drawn into their midst. Jenny seems to be a character based on the true life of Wendy Yoshimura.

Make no mistake, this is a work of fiction. While it draws from the historical facts and characters of the true story, the book focuses more on the feelings Jenny experiences and the conflict she goes through. Obviously, the events and conversations which happen in the book are fiction, because the author was not there to report them as fact, nor, I believe, was anyone else outside of the real life characters. I don’t know whether Ms. Choi actually interviewed any of them to research the story.

The book does not focus solely on Jenny’s experience with Patty and the SLA members. It’s also about her personal struggle to examine whether the beliefs and motives and desires to change the world felt by herself, her friends and their generation, and the tactics they employed in an attempt to do so, are truly worthwhile, or just a bunch of childish nonsense they should grow out of. That’s putting a very brief and blunt synopsis on a much more involved and heartfelt story than it deserves, but that’s the basic gist of it.

It also deals with Jenny’s struggle in her relationship with her father and to come to terms with how he dealt with his own tragic past of being held captive in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. At times, parts of the story are told through other characters’ viewpoints, too, including the father.

I cannot give this book enough praise or describe it well enough to do it justice. Just read it. It is hauntingly beautiful. It makes you think and feel. The descriptive prose is so perfectly…I hate to keep saying beautiful, but that’s what it is. Like all the best books do, it gives you the feeling that you are really there living the story. And that, above all, is why I loved it so much. I never wanted it to end. And even though you already know, from history, what is going to happen, you can’t help wishing for different outcomes for the characters and almost believing they will happen.

This book is, as another reviewer described it, truly an American masterpiece. Read it. Now. You won’t be sorry. And you’ll be a much better person for it, I promise.

You can buy it here on Amazon: 


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