American Woman: A Novel

Overview

On the lam for an act of violence against the American government, 25-year-old Jenny Shimada agrees to care for three younger fugitives whom a shadowy figure from her former radical life has spirited out of California. One of them, the kidnapped granddaughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate in San Francisco, has become a national celebrity for embracing her captors' ideology and joining their revolutionary cell.

A thought-provoking meditation on themes of race, identity, and ...

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American Woman: A Novel

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Overview

On the lam for an act of violence against the American government, 25-year-old Jenny Shimada agrees to care for three younger fugitives whom a shadowy figure from her former radical life has spirited out of California. One of them, the kidnapped granddaughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate in San Francisco, has become a national celebrity for embracing her captors' ideology and joining their revolutionary cell.

A thought-provoking meditation on themes of race, identity, and class, American Woman explores the psychology of the young radicals, the intensity of their isolated existence, and the paranoia and fear that undermine their ideals.

Finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

Francisco Goldman
"Few writers since Graham Greene have brought such tender, insightful, poetic, intelligent, darkly comic writing to the political thriller."
Jhumpa Lahiri
"With uncompromising grace and mastery, Susan Choi renders the intimate moments which bring to life a tale of prodigious sweep."
Joy Press
“A hypnotic, winding route through the scorched emotional landscape of 1974.”
Dan Cryer
“An artful, insightful meditation on the radical impulse ...a complex and layered work.”
Jennifer Egan
“Deeply impressive: confident, historically astute, psychologically persuasive … beautiful and disturbing… a work of real achievement.”
Jhumpa Lahiri*
“With uncompromising grace and mastery, Susan Choi renders the intimate moments which bring to life a tale of prodigious sweep.”
--Francisco Goldman
“Few writers since Graham Greene have brought such tender, insightful, poetic, intelligent, darkly comic writing to the political thriller.”
—Francisco Goldman
“Few writers since Graham Greene have brought such tender, insightful, poetic, intelligent, darkly comic writing to the political thriller.”
Vanity Fair
“Prepare to be held hostage by Susan Choi’s mesmerizing AMERICAN WOMAN.”
Denver Post
“A brilliant read … astonishing in its honesty and confidence AMERICAN WOMAN is a haunting book.”
Oregonian
“Brilliant … Choi’s insightful understanding, vivid description, lyrical use of language and deft dialogue make it an overall reading pleasure.”
New York Times
“Historical sweep and startling particular shrewdness … Choi has written a fascinating portrait of dangerous fragility.”
USA Today
Choi gives us an intelligently rendered book that reminds us how fascinating Hearst's story -- and the times that spawned it -- really were. — Anne Stephenson
The Washington Post
Choi has worked very hard to imagine Jenny Shimada's experience, and at its best, American Woman delivers a real feeling for what it was like to be this human being living through both her individual life and the ongoing history of that moment. In particular, Choi supplies a compelling account of Jenny's life before her time with Pauline and the fugitives, when she is refinishing the interior of a mansion in the Hudson Valley and dreamily removed from time and history. Moments like these provide much of the novel's satisfaction. — Tom Piazza
The Village Voice
The intense friendship between these two women rises through the novel's sophisticated, drifting structure, resulting in a brief Thelma and Louise-style lost weekend before reality intrudes on their exile, and they're forced to pay their debt to society.
The New York Times
American Woman becomes a love story of sorts. It takes us through a peculiar, psychologically instructive cycle, moving from the sensationalism of the daily news, to the convoluted group psychology of four differently idealistic but misguided souls struggling for their survival, to the subtlest tropisms of the heart's retrospective longing. But Choi does not keep a moral scorecard—questions of right and wrong are, rightly, left to the reader.—Sven Birkerts
The New Yorker
Set in 1974, Choi’s second novel follows the outlines of the Patty Hearst kidnapping, taking as its heroine one of the minor players in the drama. Jenny Shimada, who once bombed government buildings, has been living underground for two years when the kidnapping occurs. From three thousand miles away in the Hudson Valley, she follows the story obsessively: the cadre’s wild demands; the victim’s apparent conversion to the cause; the police siege in which most of the group burns to death. What she doesn’t suspect is that she will soon be chaperoning the surviving fugitives in a Catskills farmhouse as they attempt to write their memoirs, a money-making scheme cooked up by a former comrade. Jenny’s charges prove to be far more than she can handle, and things go comically, horrifically awry. The novel takes a hard-eyed look at American idealism, and yet its imaginative abundance, its fascination with self-invention, and its portrayal of the landscape as a living, breathing presence provide a quintessentially American sense of possibility.
Publishers Weekly
The Patty Hearst kidnapping was one of the defining incidents of the 1970s, but almost 30 years later, it has faded into legend, despite the many words written on the subject. Choi (The Foreign Student) makes the first stab at fictionalizing the drama, giving it grainy psychological depth and texture, while cleaving close to the true course of events. Instead of focusing on Patty (here named Pauline, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher), Choi turns her attention on Jenny Shimada, a young Japanese-American woman, who, fleeing the Feds after she and her boyfriend orchestrate the bombing of draft offices to protest the Vietnam War, agrees to help Pauline and her kidnappers. This protagonist is based on a real-life person, Wendy Yoshimura, who spent what's now called "the lost year" (1974, when Patty and her captors disappeared) with Patty and two of her kidnappers. In Choi's book, the four spend the time in a rented farmhouse in New York State, with Jenny running errands while Pauline and her "comrades" undergo physical training for their fight against "the pigs" and halfheartedly write a book. While the unfolding drama-Pauline's transformation, the bank robbery, Pauline and Jenny's cross-country trip-is enthralling, it is Choi's skill at getting inside the heads of her protagonists that gives the novel its particular, unsettling appeal. What makes Jenny a radical? And what then leads her to wonder whether "perhaps they had been wrong to fight Power on its terms, instead of rejecting its terms utterly"? Sounding the depths of her conflicted protagonists, Choi takes an uncompromising look at issues of race, class, war and peace. Agent, Bill Clegg. (Sept. 5) Forecast: HarperCollins plans a seven-city author tour, ads in the New Yorker and an NPR campaign. A reading group guide and blurbs from Joan Didion and Jhumpa Lahiri may draw in women readers, and the book's unusual hook could help it get coverage in both the mainstream and alternative press. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
After making an auspicious debut with The Foreign Student, Choi delivers a mesmerizing second effort. Inspired by the Patty Hearst kidnapping and extending issues raised in Philip Roth's American Pastoral, this novel sustains its own unwavering, original voice concerning race and politics in the 1970s. Jenny Shimada is a young Japanese American activist in hiding from the government in upstate New York after participating in bombings to protest the Vietnam War. She becomes the ward of three radical fugitives from California, including Pauline, the daughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate, whose kidnapping and conversion to the "cause" has made her a celebrity. When a robbery goes awry, Pauline and Jenny end up on an intense cross-country journey back to the West Coast and the divisive fate awaiting them there. Choi crafts complex, believable characters whose lives intersect with American politics over issues of loss, betrayal, economics, and identity. How it all comes together in an engrossing and emotive story is testament to Choi's deft narration. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/03.]-Prudence Peiffer, Southampton, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious version of the Patty Hearst story: the result is intellectually provocative and vividly imagined but weighed down by its intentions. Despite some fine writing, Choi's second with a Japanese-American protagonist (the award-winning Foreign Student, 1998) seems as much like a seminar-on class, race, and power-as it does a novel. And although protagonist Jenny Shimada shares her thoughts about her life, her past, and her present experiences, she remains as abstract as the ideas she's grappling with. At the start, 25-year-old Jenny, who, with lover William (now in prison), had bombed federal buildings in protest against the Vietnam War, is hiding out in New York State, working under an alias as she restores an old house. She's tracked down by Frazer, a former activist, who asks her to take care of Juan, Yvonne, and Pauline, who not only robbed a bank but escaped a fire in California that killed many of their co-conspirators. Frazer has rented a remote farmhouse and wants the group to write a book that will tell their story, especially Pauline's, in order to make money both for him and for their cause. As Jenny recalls her alienation from her Japanese-American father, who deplores her activism (though it's his wartime internment that made him anti-American), she tries to keep the trio focused. But the others prefer to exercise, shoot guns, and compose tapes exhorting revolution-all a worry to Jenny, who is against indiscriminate violence. She observes that Pauline, the heiress, is as dedicated as the other two, and, after a robbery goes fatally awry, the group separates. Jenny and Pauline flee New York and start driving west. On the run, Jenny tries to understand Pauline as sherecalls, not persuasively, her privileged birth and her reasons for cooperating with the revolutionaries. But the police are on their track, and betrayal is in the air. Jenny must think hard about her own moral choices. Earnest but disappointing. Author tour. Agent: Bill Clegg/Burnes & Clegg
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060542221
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/7/2004
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 528,326
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Choi was born in Indiana and grew up in Texas. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Discover Great New Writers Award at Barnes & Noble. With David Remnick, she edited an anthology of fiction entitled Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

American Woman

A Novel
By Susan Choi

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Susan Choi All right reserved. ISBN: 0060542217

Chapter One

Red Hook is little more than the junction of a couple of roads, with a farm store, a church and graveyard, a diner. And the post office, a small square cement building with RED HOOK NY 12571 spelled out in metal letters across the flat gray façade. He keeps flying through this sparse nexus of structures, first along the south-north road, then, when he finally manages to slow down and make the turn, along the east-west. He has the idea that the rest of the town must lie just farther on, and that the diner and farm store and church and post office are a far-flung outpost, but he keeps ending up twenty-odd miles away in front of a sign welcoming him to a new town, and so he keeps turning back and retracing his route. He doesn't even see houses in Red Hook, just fence lines along the roads, a dirt drive sometimes winding away. Some of the fences contain fields and some just grass and grazing animals, but everywhere there are smooth humps of hills and distant darknesses of untouched woodland, interesting vistas to the harried urban man. He's enjoying tearing up and down these roads, like swinging hard through the same arc again and again, and catching the same glimpse of the sorry little huddle at the center point, and he keeps atit for a while pointlessly, up down, zoom zoom, but finally he's forced to conclude that he's not missing anything. At the post office he parks and goes in to take a look at her box. If there were a tiny window in the little metal door he would stoop and peer in, but there isn't. At the diner he orders coffee and a jelly donut and tries to figure out where all the people live. A man in overalls asks another man at the counter how to get somewhere. "I'm from over-river," he explains. Back in his car Frazer studies the map. The Hudson lies west of here, about a ten-minute drive on these roads. Might be pretty. Frazer knows he is possessed of the skills to solve such problems as the one that lies before him. He can recognize, for example, that right now he is looking too hard at the wrong thing, and missing the point. He needs to do something else, maybe even give up for the day, find a bar and a motel, and start fresh in the morning. He should have realized that she wouldn't live here; she wouldn't want to be too near the post office. Yet she wouldn't want to travel too far. This is the sort of zero-sum compromise she makes all the time; Frazer knows this about her, having been subjected to the same flawed formulation. Trust Frazer or spurn him? A little of both? He notices, thinking of the man in overalls from over-river, that there aren't so many bridges: just four in the 150-mile stretch from the city to Albany. One lies due west of here, but Frazer's willing to bet that Jenny wouldn't cross the river for her mail. Too much traffic concentration, too confined; there's no good exit from a bridge. He puts an X on Red Hook, then estimates a half hour's driving distance and draws a circle around Red Hook with that radius. He does this mostly to amuse himself, but also because he believes in the inflexibility, predictability, knowability of people. They never stray far from their familiar realms of being. The most shocking act, closely examined, is just a louder version of some habitual gesture. No one is ever "out of character." That idea just makes Frazer laugh.

The next morning he rises early and nearly pulls the room down in the course of his exercise. He usually travels with a pair of very small, very heavy barbells, but when he finds himself without them he does other things. Five hundred jumping jacks. One-armed push-ups. He'll stand on his head for a while, and feel the pressure of the blood in his skull and the fumes of last night's alcohol steaming out of his pores. On this day he's well into the spirit of things when he grabs the bathroom door frame and pulls himself into the air, legs thrust forward a little because he's tall and the door frame is small. Then the molding around the frame - after holding him for a beat during which he does nothing but hang there, blinking confusedly, as if sensing what's coming - peels away with a terrible shriek of nails extracting from wood. Although the disaster is preceded by that beat, when it happens it happens all at once, before he can think or find his legs, and he lands heavily on his ass like a sack of grain. There is abrupt, alarming pain. He keels over sideways and lies there curled up, half of him on one side of the door and half of him on the other. He has the yellowish linoleum of the bathroom floor against his ear, and his face is contorted, partly an effort to keep the tears that have filled his eyes from streaming down his cheeks, but they do anyway.

He gives up and cries a little, quietly. In truth, sacrosanct as his exercise is, he is a little embarrassed by it - perhaps because it is so sacrosanct. He remembers being surprised once by Mike Sorsa, in the apartment they'd shared in North Berkeley. He'd always waited until Sorsa left for class, and he'd heard the door slam downstairs and Sorsa's footsteps cross the creaking wood porch and drop onto the sidewalk, but on this morning, almost an hour after Sorsa had left, he'd unexpectedly come home. Frazer had been so deeply enveloped in his routine and in the music he'd put on to accompany himself he hadn't heard anything until Sorsa was standing there in the doorway ...

(Continues...)


Excerpted from American Woman by Susan Choi
Copyright © 2003 by Susan Choi
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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First Chapter

American Woman
A Novel

Chapter One

Red Hook is little more than the junction of a couple of roads, with a farm store, a church and graveyard, a diner. And the post office, a small square cement building with RED HOOK NY 12571 spelled out in metal letters across the flat gray façade. He keeps flying through this sparse nexus of structures, first along the south-north road, then, when he finally manages to slow down and make the turn, along the east-west. He has the idea that the rest of the town must lie just farther on, and that the diner and farm store and church and post office are a far-flung outpost, but he keeps ending up twenty-odd miles away in front of a sign welcoming him to a new town, and so he keeps turning back and retracing his route. He doesn't even see houses in Red Hook, just fence lines along the roads, a dirt drive sometimes winding away. Some of the fences contain fields and some just grass and grazing animals, but everywhere there are smooth humps of hills and distant darknesses of untouched woodland, interesting vistas to the harried urban man. He's enjoying tearing up and down these roads, like swinging hard through the same arc again and again, and catching the same glimpse of the sorry little huddle at the center point, and he keeps at it for a while pointlessly, up down, zoom zoom, but finally he's forced to conclude that he's not missing anything. At the post office he parks and goes in to take a look at her box. If there were a tiny window in the little metal door he would stoop and peer in, but there isn't. At the diner he orders coffee and a jelly donut and tries to figure out where all the people live. A man in overalls asks another man at the counter how to get somewhere. "I'm from over-river," he explains. Back in his car Frazer studies the map. The Hudson lies west of here, about a ten-minute drive on these roads. Might be pretty. Frazer knows he is possessed of the skills to solve such problems as the one that lies before him. He can recognize, for example, that right now he is looking too hard at the wrong thing, and missing the point. He needs to do something else, maybe even give up for the day, find a bar and a motel, and start fresh in the morning. He should have realized that she wouldn't live here; she wouldn't want to be too near the post office. Yet she wouldn't want to travel too far. This is the sort of zero-sum compromise she makes all the time; Frazer knows this about her, having been subjected to the same flawed formulation. Trust Frazer or spurn him? A little of both? He notices, thinking of the man in overalls from over-river, that there aren't so many bridges: just four in the 150-mile stretch from the city to Albany. One lies due west of here, but Frazer's willing to bet that Jenny wouldn't cross the river for her mail. Too much traffic concentration, too confined; there's no good exit from a bridge. He puts an X on Red Hook, then estimates a half hour's driving distance and draws a circle around Red Hook with that radius. He does this mostly to amuse himself, but also because he believes in the inflexibility, predictability, knowability of people. They never stray far from their familiar realms of being. The most shocking act, closely examined, is just a louder version of some habitual gesture. No one is ever "out of character." That idea just makes Frazer laugh.

The next morning he rises early and nearly pulls the room down in the course of his exercise. He usually travels with a pair of very small, very heavy barbells, but when he finds himself without them he does other things. Five hundred jumping jacks. One-armed push-ups. He'll stand on his head for a while, and feel the pressure of the blood in his skull and the fumes of last night's alcohol steaming out of his pores. On this day he's well into the spirit of things when he grabs the bathroom door frame and pulls himself into the air, legs thrust forward a little because he's tall and the door frame is small. Then the molding around the frame -- after holding him for a beat during which he does nothing but hang there, blinking confusedly, as if sensing what's coming -- peels away with a terrible shriek of nails extracting from wood. Although the disaster is preceded by that beat, when it happens it happens all at once, before he can think or find his legs, and he lands heavily on his ass like a sack of grain. There is abrupt, alarming pain. He keels over sideways and lies there curled up, half of him on one side of the door and half of him on the other. He has the yellowish linoleum of the bathroom floor against his ear, and his face is contorted, partly an effort to keep the tears that have filled his eyes from streaming down his cheeks, but they do anyway.

He gives up and cries a little, quietly. In truth, sacrosanct as his exercise is, he is a little embarrassed by it -- perhaps because it is so sacrosanct. He remembers being surprised once by Mike Sorsa, in the apartment they'd shared in North Berkeley. He'd always waited until Sorsa left for class, and he'd heard the door slam downstairs and Sorsa's footsteps cross the creaking wood porch and drop onto the sidewalk, but on this morning, almost an hour after Sorsa had left, he'd unexpectedly come home. Frazer had been so deeply enveloped in his routine and in the music he'd put on to accompany himself he hadn't heard anything until Sorsa was standing there in the doorway ...

American Woman
A Novel
. Copyright © by Susan Choi. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

In American Woman, Susan Choi assembles a fictionalized recasting of the notorious 1974 Patty Hearst kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army. On this historical framework, Choi drapes a tale pulsing with immediacy, as we follow the aftermath of a violent shootout and life on the run.

Jenny Shimada, young Japanese-American woman, hides out in upstate New York, on the lam after bombing draft offices in California. Robert Frazer, a former acquaintance in the countercultural movement, finds Jenny and persuades her to aid three younger radical fugitives whom Frazer has smuggled across the country. One in particular, Pauline, the granddaughter of a wealthy newspaper magnate in San Francisco, shocked the nation by denouncing her family and espousing the views of her captors. Despite her initial misgivings, Jenny agrees to move into a secluded rural farmhouse with the fugitives, acting as a buffer between the cadre and the outside world, taking care of their needs while they write a book to fund, and further the aims of, the revolution.

The complex negotiations and various frictions between the foursome eventually culminate in botched robbery attempt that sends Jenny and Pauline careening on a hallucinatory road trip back to California. A meditation on individual belief and the zeitgeist, a droll send-up of the self-anointed morally superior, and a flawless character study, American Woman explores a turbulent era in which the last flickering embers of liberal radicalism and youthful idealism smoldered.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How would you characterize Robert Frazer?

  2. Is Pauline's status within the group secure? Does Jenny ever become accepted?

  3. Are commonly held notions regarding the glamour and romance of life on the run -- coded telephone calls, wiping off fingerprints, disguises, rerouted letters, safe houses, etc -- still intact? How does this account differ from most other fiction, or even cinematographic depictions?

  4. In what ways does she surprise her captors? Do you think her conversion to the radical cause was genuine or the result of Stockholm syndrome type brainwashing? In the end, is Pauline any less of an enigma?

  5. How does Jenny react to Juan's praise and goading about her "non-white-skin privilege?" Why do most people she encounters inquire into her country of origin, and how does she respond?

  6. What is the significance of Jenny's relationship with her father? How do his internment and their five-year sojourn in Japan lead to her participation in the radical movement?

  7. Does "living in the times," as Jenny did, preclude the ability to discern your own convictions? Is it possible to distinguish one's own beliefs from the rush of the national mood today?

  8. In Part 4, a journalist covering Pauline's case thinks of Jenny and Pauline as "the two girls who thought they could make history, while all the while it had made them." What does she mean? Do you agree?

  9. Given the attempts by the counterculture movement to reshape society, what conclusions does American Woman draw regarding America's pervading class and ethnic rigidity? Do you think the movement was successful? How does wealth inure Pauline and Dolly from the vagaries of life?

  10. Who does the "American Woman" of the title refer to? Given the fact that the female protagonists of American Woman are fugitives from the law, do you find the title ironic? How is each woman estranged from society, and in what ways does this novel reassess what it means to be an American Woman?

About the Author

Susan Choi was born in Indiana and grew up in Texas. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the Discover Great New Writers Award at Barnes & Noble. With David Remnick, she edited an anthology of fiction entitled Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker. In 2004 Susan Choi was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2008

    A reviewer

    The American Woman was the first book I've read by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The storyline jumped a bit in the first 80 pages so I was a little confused at the beginning, but once settled down, the characters unfolded and the writing proved both intelligent and hard to put down. I have begun reading her 'A Person of Interest' and look forward to it with great expectations.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2003

    I couldn't put this book down

    Exquisitely written, suspenseful and moving, this is one of the most compelling books I've read in a long time. The main character, Jenny, a fugitive and troubled radical, is beautifully drawn, at times funny and enigmatic. The book is a completely new and engrossing take on the period.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2003

    Time Warp: An Inside View of the History of Radicalism

    Susan Choi's first novel THE FOREIGN STUDENT signaled the arrival of a sensitive new voice unafraid to tackle tender issues of national guilt and immigrant isolation in the Land of Dreams. In her new novel AMERICAN WOMAN Choi further establishes her credentials as an important American writer who manages to research historical data so well that turning that media blitz-hype into a novel results in a compelling probe of the minds of youth at odds with the society that raised them. Succinctly based on the 1974 SLA kidnapping of Patricia Hearst and its aftermath, Choi has played out this tragic but intensely credible bit of American history in the form of a series of character studies of those involved. The main character Jenny is a Japanese American girl involved with the radical groups who struck out against the Vietnam War, the hypocrisy of a 'democratic' America, and the abuse of the police in neglecting the poor people of this country. Choi's Jenny makes us re-examine the motivation that perpetrated the radicals of that period and if this book has no other result than to cause us all to re-think the important role of students who questioned the state of the Union, then that raised flag would be sufficient. But this finely wrought novel goes beyond that exploratory surgery and finds analogies to the reactions to the interment of the Japanese during WW II (Jenny's father was one of those interred and greatly influenced her perception of right and wrong in America), to the effect of isolation (read imprisonment/segregation) on young minds at odds with the status quo, to the power of bonding between individuals whose common needs may in fact be disparate. AMERICAN WOMAN is a slow read: Choi knows how to create that pregnant ennui that encapsulates feral individuals awaiting the backlash of their actions. But during those slow pages Choi manages to spread her canvas on the page and paint immaculate images of nature at rest and at fury. In the end she gives us a group of people not all of whom we can admire (or even care for), but at the same time she molds thoughtful minds that accept abuse because of their beliefs, who continue to foster dreams against all plausible odds. And just when you may tire of the shenanigans of Choi's 'cast', you are reminded that this story on a different level DID happen. Stay with this book to the end and you will embrace or perhaps even question your own idealistic youth that dwells back there someplace in the 1970s.

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