Once Removed

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"It has been many long years since Claudia last saw her Japanese-American stepsister. Once upon a time, Claudia's Jewish father fell in love with Rei's Japanese mother and abandoned his family to be with her. Though Claudia resented this new family her father so readily embraced, from the moment she and Rei met, the two girls formed a bond not even their parents understood. Their long-standing joke is that they are mirror reflections of each other - though in truth they are striking opposites. Claudia is blond and large-boned; Rei is dark-haired
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Overview

"It has been many long years since Claudia last saw her Japanese-American stepsister. Once upon a time, Claudia's Jewish father fell in love with Rei's Japanese mother and abandoned his family to be with her. Though Claudia resented this new family her father so readily embraced, from the moment she and Rei met, the two girls formed a bond not even their parents understood. Their long-standing joke is that they are mirror reflections of each other - though in truth they are striking opposites. Claudia is blond and large-boned; Rei is dark-haired and thin, with distinct Asian features." Now in their early thirties, Claudia and Rei have found a way back into each other's troubled life. As impulsively affectionate as ever, Rei has come to Boston to recuperate from a potentially life-threatening illness, while the typically cautious Claudia has found herself replicating the behavior of her step-mother by falling in love with a married man. As they come together, the two women realize they must strike a balance between the friendship they long to recover and the secrets they have learned to keep. And they discover that despite the distance that has grown between them, their bond is as strong as ever - and could help them repair the other wounded relationships in their lives.
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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Eloquent and evocative, Once Removed explores the nature of love and marriage, intimacy and betrayal. At the same time, it is always mindful of the ways chance and history shape character and influence choices. — Linda Barrett Osborne
Publishers Weekly
Painful breakups and long separations define this gentle, thoughtful novel by Yoshikawa (One Hundred and One Ways), in which two stepsisters rekindle a long-interrupted friendship. Claudia and Rei first meet when they are nine, after Claudia's father, a New Jersey geologist, abandons Claudia's mother for Rei's mother, a Japanese artist who has recently immigrated to the U.S. The two girls become fast friends-they insist that they even look alike, though Claudia is blond and Catholic-Jewish, and Rei is Japanese-but when they are 17, their parents divorce, and they are separated. As the novel begins, they meet again for the first time in 17 years. Rei, battling skin cancer, looks to Claudia for the support she always provided as a child. Claudia, in turn, barrages Rei with countless questions about the demise of their parents' marriage and Rei's disappearance, and consults her about her own affair with a married man, Vikrum. As the novel progresses, Rei's mother, long viewed by Claudia as the temptress who destroyed her family, emerges as a conflicted woman bound by pride and scarred by an incident in Japan during World War II. As her story is revealed, Claudia begins to think differently about her past, but also about her tormented relationship with Vikrum. Yoshikawa's writing has a tendency to swim into soft focus, but the emotional struggles she recounts are keenly described and their resolutions unexpected. Agent, Sandra Dijkstra. (June) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Yoshikawa's follow-up to her first novel, One Hundred and One Ways, is a contemporary multicultural story of two stepsisters, one Japanese American and the other Jewish American, initially brought together through marriage and now reunited after a 17-year separation. The narration alternates between Rei(ko) and Claudia, whose father, Henry, left her and her mother, Rosie, to marry Rei's mother, Hana. Each sister describes her experiences growing up and her relationships with the other characters in the novel. Added to the mix are Rei's bout with skin cancer and Claudia's own guilt-ridden story of taking after her father in maintaining an affair with Vikram, a married man of Indian descent with an alcoholic wife and two young children. Yoshikawa's writing is filled with long, intricate sentences and thoughts. Asides set off in parentheses and liberally sprinkled throughout the text are distracting, often interrupting the flow of the narrative. As a result, the novel begins slowly, but it manages to pick up speed and as a whole covers the topic of ethnically blended families and divorce with a fresh and honest sense of realism. Libraries owning her previous novel and those with ample fiction budgets may find this a worthwhile purchase.-Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A reserved second outing by Yoshikawa (One Hundred and One Ways, 1999), filled with regret and recriminations, about two stepsisters reunited. After a 17-year-long separation and silence, Claudia is both overjoyed and troubled when stepsister Rei contacts her. Rei is moving to Boston, so the two will be together again, but Claudia wants to know why Rei disappeared in the first place. When Claudia was nine, her kind but plodding father Henry shocked everyone by quickly divorcing Claudia’s mother to marry Hana, a Japanese widow he met at the hardware store. Claudia (who spent weekends with her father’s new family) and Rei became sisters in the truest sense of the word, thinking of each other as twins, wondering how anyone could tell them apart. Though she hated Hana for dissolving her family (and still does), Claudia was spellbound by the stories Rei told, fairy tales involving Hana and the crown prince of Japan, about Hana the dedicated young artist, about Hana and America. Now that Rei is back, cagey and unwilling to talk about the skin cancer that nearly killed her, Claudia is revisited by images of Hana. Always fascinated by the woman who stole her father, Claudia feels she is now truly her stepmother’s child since she herself is having an affair with a married man. Claudia and Vikram have been devoted to each other for the past two years, but his traditional family won’t allow for divorce, especially with his two children so young. The irony is not lost on Claudia, but her intractable dislike for Hana remains. Though a bit splintered in its focus, the final revelations--why Hana abandoned Henry after eight years of blissful marriage, why Hana became obsessed with painting mushrooms,why Hana eventually takes all responsibility for Rei’s cancer--serve less as compulsory climax than as simple extensions of the stories Rei has been telling Claudia all their lives about the mysterious and unknowable Hana. A quiet, meditative tale about devotion in its many forms. Agent: Sandy Dijkstra
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553801552
  • Publisher: Bantam Books
  • Publication date: 5/31/2003
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.86 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Mako Yoshikawa has studied at Columbia University and at Oxford. She has been a Vera M. Schuyler Fellow of Creative Writing at the Bunting Institute at Harvard University and is a doctoral candidate in English literature at the University of Michigan. She is also the author of the novel One Hundred and One Ways. Yoshikawa lives in Boston.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Claudia

Boston, 1999

It has become a ritual: after we make love, Vikrum sings to me. He has an easy, supple voice, deep with a dusting of gravel to it. His sense of pitch is flawed at best, but that does not bother him nor, it seems, those of us who are his listeners. He takes requests--lately, with me, it has been Beatles songs. Does he sing lullabies to his children and odes to his wife? I love to hear him at all times, but especially when he sings only for me.

As a child, my stepsister, Rei, used to sing as Vikrum does: without care for who might be listening, and with scant regard for the exact words or tune. Perhaps, today, I will find out if she still does.

His rendition of "Yesterday" over, Vikrum rolls over onto his back and watches me as I hunt for my clothes. "Where are you going, why the rush? Stay awhile," he says, coaxing. "Take a minute, or thirty, to let your lover tell you how much he adores you. We can even debate the benefits of a twentieth-century human being born with a tail, if you like. Because there are some, you know."

"Tempting," I say. "But not today. I have to go meet Rei."

"Who? Oh, of course, your long-lost stepsister." Vikrum whistles softly. "So the big reunion is set for this afternoon."

The dress I was wearing is a little wrinkled, but it will have to do.

"So let me see if I'm getting this story straight. She calls you out of the blue, after an absence of who knows how many--"

"Seventeen--"

"--years, and you're going to abandon your lover, who wants nothing more thanto hold you and lavish you with compliments and sweet nothings, and to stimulate your mind with intellectual arguments of far-ranging scientific consequences, to go have coffee with her?"

I tilt my head, considering. "In a word, yes."

"Fair enough. But given that she made you wait seventeen years for this coffee date, couldn't you make her wait a paltry seventeen minutes while we come up with a reason for another song?"

"No," I say, turning to face him with a smile. "After all this time, seventeen extra seconds would be too long for me to wait to see her."

"In that case," he says, conceding defeat with grace, "I hope I also get to meet her someday soon." He smiles back at me, which is to say that his whole face brightens and grows soft, and his eyes--large and deep-set, darker even than Rei's, and framed by long lashes--crinkle up at the corners. At the age of thirty-two, Vikrum has deep creases around his eyes. Even though Rei is probably already on her way to meet me, I cannot resist: I lean forward and kiss his eyes, first his left and then his right. Then I kiss him down the length of his nose, three times. For a grand total of five, just as I always do. For a moment we gaze at each other, nose to nose, and then I pull away.

There was a time, not so long ago, when I would suddenly find that I was tilting toward Vikrum. If we were walking, I would be tipped over sideways at a thirty-degree angle, head inclined and one shoulder way higher than the other; if we were sitting across from each other in a restaurant, I would be leaning forward so far that my bangs were in danger of trailing in the food. My posture is better these days, but only because I am mindful of the years still ahead of me and the need I will have of my back.

I turn away and recommence getting dressed. "Could this actually be," I ask, amused, "the first time that I'm leaving you in bed rather than the other way around?"

It's the wrong thing to say.

Vikrum is quiet for so long that, busy with my hairbrush, I have almost forgotten what I said by the time he responds. "The scary thing is that that actually might be right." A strained quality in his voice makes me turn. He lies on my bed with an arm covering his eyes. "I'm spoiled, aren't I?" he says. "I should be spoiling you the same way. You deserve it, no one more."

What does it mean to have a married lover? A question that Hana, my former stepmother, could now throw at me if she were spiteful. Since she never was that, she could pose that question instead, perhaps with a sigh and a quarter-smile and a thoughtful shake of the head--the conversation starter to end all conversation starters, guaranteed to break the ice so thoroughly it would usher in a whole new era, the age of the hairless dinosaur and the end of the woolly mammoth's. Hana and I never did have much of substance to say to each other.

Having a married lover means: major holidays spent alone. Not getting to meet most of his friends or any of his relatives. Not being able to call him whenever I want to. Having the extraordinarily sweet but also sweetly ordinary experience of waking up next to your beloved turn into a privilege rather than a prerogative, enjoyed but one night out of a hundred. Knowing that no matter how fervently and how often he assures me that his marriage is a sham, the rest of the world views him as one half of a couple that is not me and him. Being haunted by the thought of his wife and his--their, a pronoun rendered vicious--children. But of course, I would cry out to Hana (and, guessing what I am about to say, she would raise an amused eyebrow in anticipatory agreement), there are compensations.

Not least, the knowledge that I truly love Vikrum and that he perhaps even more truly loves me. Because why else, really, would we continue to suffer in this hellhole of a situation?

Taking his arm away from his eyes, Vikrum looks at me. Then he beckons me close with a finger. "You buttoned your dress wrong," he says gently. "Come here, I'll do it up for you."

I look down. I might as well be one of the children in my class, my dress hangs so obviously askew.

"I must be tired. I couldn't even sleep last night," I confess, lifting up my chin as he redoes my buttons. "That's how much I've been looking forward to seeing Rei again."

The dress fixed, he draws me close, and for a few moments I allow myself to sink into the yielding warmth of his torso. Vikrum likes to play baseball and basketball; sometimes he goes for long runs. His limbs are muscled, and he is tall and well built and anything but fat. Yet the first time I slept with him I was surprised to find that I had beneath me (and over and behind and across me--our first time together was gymnastic, or what would perhaps more accurately be described as acrobatic, the sense of soaring through the air to a partner who was always there to catch me) a man whose belly was deeply soft. A few heady weeks later, I could assert with confidence what I had only guessed at then: Vikrum is that rare person, at peace both with himself and with the world. For proof, I thought, I need only point to his slack stomach. Witness here a man who not only has never done a sit-up in his life, but who has probably never tensed up his stomach muscles with dread or with fear.

It has always seemed mysterious to me that a man with such a soft belly could have worry lines around his eyes and on his forehead.

"Do you know," he says, in my ear, "it gets harder to say good-bye to you every time. I wish--you know what I wish."

Enfolded in his arms, I can hear his heartbeat. As if to belie what seems to be the excitability of his temperament (the waves of enthusiasm he is given to, powerful enough to lift me and, I imagine, everyone else who comes into contact with him--his wife? of course his children and his audiences--onto a high tide of comparable exuberance), his is the steadiest, slowest pulse I have ever heard, and it is rapidly becoming the rhythm by which I measure my life. Even with the knowledge that I am going to see Rei within the hour--within minutes! I could count them, or even sing them out loud and I never sing--it takes real effort to remove myself from the circle of his arms.

While I have been listening to his heart beat, he has been listening to mine. "Your pulse is racing," he says, sitting up. "You really are looking forward to seeing her again, aren't you?"

"Well, she is the only sister I've ever had."

"Is that why you're so happy she's here? Because she's family?"

He is laughing, but his incredulity is only half-feigned. If enough pressure is applied, Vikrum will admit a fondness for his sprawling, taxonomical challenge of a family: parents, grandparents, sisters, aunts and uncles (great-, great-great-, and garden-variety), and cousins of various stripes (first all the way up to fourth, as well as too-many-times-to-be-counted removed). But it takes no pressure at all to make him proclaim with glee that, glory be, they almost all live far away, many of them still back in India. And, once this proclamation has been made, it is only with pressure that he can be stopped from going on at great albeit amusing length about the burdens of having to buy and send wedding presents to people he barely knows, of needing to send money to bail his younger sisters and cousins out of scrapes, and of having to fend off yet another phone call from one of his well-meaning but overly curious grandmothers.

I have tried to explain to him what it is like, having a family that consists of me and two parents. He listens, nods sympathetically, worries with me about my father's health, and echoes my oft-stated wish that he and my mother did not live quite so far away. But there are limits to the power of the imagination. He cannot really know what it is like to worry about having to spend Christmas alone someday, any more than I can imagine what it is like to have the luxury, or is that the burden, of having so many cousins that you despair of ever remembering all of their names.

"Family's a good thing, of course," I say. "But with Rei . . ." I shrug. "It's more than that."

Since we are meeting at the cafe around the corner from my apartment, I need to leave a scant ten minutes before the designated hour of four. There is still half an hour to go, but I open the closet and begin rummaging for my favorite shoes; they are nowhere in sight. Are Rei's feet also still too large for her height? Could she and I still share shoes; have the size of our feet as well as our taste in clothes kept pace throughout the years?

I glance in the mirror--clothed, hair brushed, old pair of shoes in hand--then I go and sit on the edge of the bed. Vikrum places an arm around my hip, wedging me in.

"When I met her," I say, "we were both nine."

Where was Rei's sister, Kei, when she and I first met? Where was her mother--an already vivid presence in my life, sweet-scented and as pale and lovely as the moon? All I can remember is scuffing my toe (encased in my best patent leather) in the dirt, my head bent studiously down. Then my father's whisper--"Say hi to your new stepsister"--and the feel of his broad hand between my shoulder blades, nudging me forward.

For years to come Rei and I would talk of this first meeting. It was like looking in a mirror. Did either of us even notice the difference in our skin color and the shape of our eyes? Same age, same height, same length hair; stomachs thrust forward at an identical angle, legs equally skinny and scabbed, two pairs of pigeon-toed, unusually large feet. Later, when we took to wearing the exact same outrageous outfits, shirts in bold stripes of orange and black or dresses with large matching purple flowers, it would seem a minor miracle that people could tell us apart.

"And?" Vikrum says, prompting me.

I look down at him, this man my lover, lying naked on my bed. I sometimes think I fell in love with Vikrum for the way that he watches me. Has anyone ever looked at me so intently before?

I turn away. "Rei and I looked alike," I say. "It sounds silly, but we did. I thought of her as an actual sister. As my twin, even."

"You looked alike," he repeats, suppressed laughter in his voice. "Even though she's Japanese and you're blond and Jewish-Catholic?"

I nod.

He squints at me and holds up his hands to frame a shot around my face. "Of course," he says, deadpan. "How could I have missed it before? I can see it now: the East Asian girl in you."

Then, propping himself up to reach me, he kisses me on my forehead, my earlobe, and the shivery part of my neck. Vikrum has magic in his lips.

"I've got to go," I manage to say. It is never easy to part with him, but it is, at least, less excruciating than usual this afternoon. "It's time to go see her. You can just pull the door shut behind you."

I leave to the accompaniment of him singing Verdi in the shower. I have never been a fast walker, but as I walk down the block to the cafe where Rei awaits, it feels like I am flying.

Chapter Two

Rei

Boston, 1999

Is that Claudia in the matching skirt and jacket, her hair, now russet rather than dark gold, combed flat to shiny perfection? Or is that my stepsister with the nose ring and sleek leather pants, a well-preserved thirty-four-year-old indeed? Why would that gray-haired, rather overweight woman wearing glasses on the end of her nose be casting so many glances in my direction, unless it's to verify that I'm the one she's here to meet?

It's not until I find myself searching for traces of Claudia in every white woman aged twenty to fifty who walks into the cafe that it even occurs to me that I might not recognize her. From there, it's a small step to the far more disquieting thought that I might just have erred in my assumption (the assumption, worse luck, that I had to gamble on in asking her here today, after so many years apart) that people don't ever really change. Physically, sure, but not deep down.

Copyright© 2003 by Mako Yoshikawa
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Reading Group Guide

1. The novel begins and ends with images of Claudia and Vikrum. In what way does their relationship form an appropriate backdrop for the novel’s other narratives?

2. What is the effect of the shifting points of view? Do these various perspectives mirror or conflict with one another?

3. Rei’s storytelling ability enchanted Claudia. How would you characterize her stories? Do they share any common threads? What is the significance of language in her capacity to remember, and to preserve her mother’s memories?

4. Rosie and Hana appear to have many distinctions, especially in terms of career (mathematician versus artist) and cultural outlook. What drew Henry to each of them? What kept him from remaining committed to them?

5. Mako Yoshikawa includes vivid scenes of going through customs. How do the seemingly mundane items mentioned in these passages, the radish and the dragonfly in particular, garner their tremendous emotional significance? What metaphors can be drawn from the process of crossing these borderlines?

6. What determines the alliances within your own family? Which relative is your most trusted confidant, and how was that bond formed?

7. In what way do the novel’s characters embody various time periods, from the final chapters of World War II to the social awakenings of the 1970s and the dilemmas of contemporary life?

8. What shapes Rei’s perception of her father? How do his absence and Henry’s presence impact her attitudes toward love and family?

9. Toward the end of chapter eleven, Yoshikawa asks, “So was it the fact that happiness lay in choosing love over a more glamorous match—that love, which might just be life’s ultimate goal, was captured by Hana only because she could see that the handsome, glamorous Emperor-in-waiting offered less than the banker with the oddly mismatched face?” Though the author then underscores the rhetorical nature of this question, she has made an important observation about the quandaries imposed by social pressure. What empowers so many of the novel’s characters to make bold sacrifices for love?

10. Why did Claudia reject Hana’s warmth for so long? What determines whether stepfamilies will experience such tensions?

11. Why wasn’t Henry able to have more compassion for Hana when he discovered her medical file? How does he define honesty and integrity?

12. In what way does Rei’s illness lead to emotional healing for her family? Can Hana accept that the melanoma’s onset was beyond anyone’s control?

13. How would you have responded to Vikrum’s ring? Is Claudia’s decision a liberating one, or does it trap her in a generational cycle?

14. What transformations occur as a result of Claudia’s reunion with Rei? What do you predict for their future as a family?

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