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American Fuji

American Fuji

4.1 22
by Sara Backer

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?Japan itself is the comic hero of American Fuji?sweet and funny, sad and inspiring.?

Gaby Stanton, an American professor living in Japan, has lost her job teaching English at Shizuyama University. (No one will tell her exactly why.) Alex Thorn, an American psychologist, is mourning his son, a Shizuyama exchange student who was killed in an accident.


?Japan itself is the comic hero of American Fuji?sweet and funny, sad and inspiring.?

Gaby Stanton, an American professor living in Japan, has lost her job teaching English at Shizuyama University. (No one will tell her exactly why.) Alex Thorn, an American psychologist, is mourning his son, a Shizuyama exchange student who was killed in an accident. (No one will tell him exactly how.) Alex has come to this utterly foreign place to find the truth, and now Gaby is serving as his translator and guide. The key to mastering Japanese, she keeps telling him, is understanding what's not being said. And in this "deft and delightful" (Karen Joy Fowler) novel, the unsaid truths about everything from work and love to illness and death cast a deafening silence-and tower in the background like Mount Fuji itself.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Sometimes, one must accept what has happened without understanding it." Poet and short story writer Backer's highly entertaining, seriocomic debut novel explores this intrinsic Japanese philosophy from a unique perspective--that of a single American woman living and working in Japan. The concept of blind acceptance, difficult for any American to understand, is especially frustrating for Gabriela "Gaby" Stanton, 36, fired from her beloved teaching job at Shizuyama University for mysterious reasons. Gaby now works for Mr. Eguchi of Gone with the Wind, a company that sells fantasy funerals, including burial on the moon. Middle-aged Alex Thorn is also a victim of the collision of East/West culture. Alex has come to Japan seeking answers concerning the death of his 20-year-old son, Cody, an exchange student attending the university where Gaby taught. Cody died in a motorcycle accident, and his heart was removed for a transplant. But Cody had adopted a Buddhist philosophy that strictly prohibits organ donation. Alex's search for the details of his son's death lead him to Gaby, since Gone With the Wind shipped Cody's body home to America. Backer adeptly evokes her characters' emotional dislocation as Gaby and Alex negotiate a country where natives often can't read their own language and group needs supersede those of the individual. (Mar. 19) Forecast: The novel's ending should satisfy an American readership's need for closure, but its slow unfolding may defy their accustomed sense of pacing. Patience, reader-san, "There is much to be learned from following a path." If booksellers emphasize the novel's quality (and point out that Backer was the first American and the first woman to serve as visiting professor of English at Japan's Shizuoka University, and that an early draft of American Fuji was named a finalist in the James Jones First Novel competition), success should ensue. Rights sold in the Netherlands and France. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This debut novel by Backer, a former professor of English at Shizouka University in Japan, is about American (and other English-speaking) expatriates in Japan. One would think, given the author's background, that something more than a fairly conventional romance novel might emerge, but unfortunately that is not the case. Despite Backer's thorough knowledge of Japanese people and places and occasional keen insights, her story is sadly derivative. If you believe the Japanese people to be arrogant, insular, misogynist, and xenophobic, then this is the book for you. Backer's Japanese characters show themselves to be narrow, bigoted folk who call foreigners names and ask them insulting questions at will. Toward the end, Backer gives each of her main characters epiphanies that help them realize the grace and beauty of Japan, but by then the reader will simply be unable to ignore the preceding diatribe. This is an optional purchase.--Tom Cooper, Richmond Heights Memorial Lib., MO Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively debut about the innocence of Americans abroad in modern Japan. Gaby Stanton, a 36-year-old expatriate in her fifth year of teaching English at a small Japanese university, is peremptorily fired. No explanation furnished. No appeal possible. Well,"This is Japan, expect the unexpected," she's been told often enough to have become a believer. Unexpectedly, then, she lands a job at a company called Gone With the Wind, owned and operated by one Mr. Eguchi, cool, shrewd, and, it turns out, yakuza-connected (read: mafia). She's to sell fantasy funerals, suddenly a hot status symbol among affluent Japanese. For a fix on the degree of affluence, Eguchi counsels the ever-reliable toilet test whenever Gaby makes a house call:"Toilets tell truth about people," he insists. Enter dour, straitlaced Alex Thorn, psychologist, and author of Why Love Fails, a self-help book that developed out of his own bitter experience. Alex is in Japan to investigate the presumably accidental death of his college-aged son, a death surrounded by mysterious circumstances. Whatever these are, Gone With the Wind appears to be at the heart of the case, especially since Alex has a bill from the company"for services rendered" that also seem shrouded in mystery. Alex wants answers. Pretty soon, Gaby finds herself wanting to help. And, to her surprise—skeptical as she is about the opposite sex—finds herself attracted to him. In the days that follow, Gaby and Alex learn enough about the so-called accident to be certain it involves a money-making scam of considerable significance. They also learn a good deal about each other. As for dour Alex, he lightens up, discovering more than he everthoughtpossibleabout coming to terms with the unexpected. While cultures clash, love flourishes: a funny, warmhearted first novel just a bit overlength.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

by Sara Backer



Gaby Stanton, an American professor living in Japan, has lost her job teaching English at Shizuyama University. (No one will tell her exactly why.) Alex Thorn, an American psychologist, is mourning his son, a Shizuyama exchange student killed in an accident. (No one will tell him exactly how.) Alex has come to this utterly foreign place to find the truth, and now Gaby—newly employed at a Japanese "fantasy funeral" company—is his guide. Gaby, at least, can speak the language, though as she explains to Alex, the key to mastering Japanese is understanding what's not being said. And in this dazzling, unusual novel, the unsaid truths about everything from work and love to illness and death cast a deafening silence—and tower in the background like Mount Fuji itself.



Sara Backer was the first American and the first woman to serve as visiting professor of English at Japan's Shizuoka University. An early draft of American Fuji was named a finalist in the James Jones First Novel Competition, and a play she wrote as a Djerassi artist in residence was chosen for performance at the Edward Albee Theatre Conference in June 2000. A published poet and short-story writer, Backer lives in San Luis Obispo, California.



  1. In what ways does Gaby Stanton typify an American living abroad? How does her perspective on Japanese culture compare to Alexander Thorn's? How do their attitudes change as their relationship develops?

  2. How do Gaby and Alex's social positions—single American adults—affect them differently in Japan? How do their professional lives affect how they are perceived and how they behave? Does gender play a role? How?

  3. In what ways does Gaby's "shameful illness" (p. 247) impact her relationships with others? With herself? How is her relationship to her body a reflection of the culture she lives in? Discuss.

  4. Early in the narrative, Gaby says to Lester: "How many people are happy, no matter where they are? Overall, my life is better in Japan than it was in America. Isn't that good enough?" (p. 30). Is this sentiment sincere? Does her perspective on happiness change over the course of the story?

  5. How do obligation and affection overlap in Gaby's relationship with Alexander Thorn? With Mr. Eguchi? With Lester? In what ways are her expectations challenged by this duality?

  6. In what ways is Alexander Thorn's life altered by his quest for answers about his son's death? How is Mr. Aoshima's appearance on Mount Fuji meaningful?

  7. "America's not my home," Gaby tells Mr. Eguchi (p. 337). Japan is not her home either, she goes on to admit. What factors contribute to her emerging comfort in the role of exile? Alex ends the book by looking "to the east, facing home." How has the idea of home changed for him as a result of his time in Japan?

  8. How has Gaby's relationship to her home been challenged by the loss of her prestigious university job? By her relationship with Alex? By her illness? How does her behavior in her apartment reflect these changes?

  9. Are Rie's deformed foot, Aoshima's new heart, and Endo's suicide attempts significant? How? In what ways are they emblematic of Gaby's admonition to "Expect the unexpected?" What is Gaby's reaction to unexpected events in her own life?

  10. Musical toilets, English-as-Beatles-lyrics, moon funerals: to what extent do these absurd-seeming aspects of Japanese culture reflect the prejudices of the narrator herself? Is Gaby Stanton a reliable interpreter of Japanese manners and mores? Why or why not?

Meet the Author

Sara Backer was the first American and the first woman to serve as visiting professor of English at Japan's Shizuoka University. An early draft of American Fuji was named a finalist in the James Jones First Novel Competition, and a play she wrote as a Djerassi artist in residence was chosen for performance at the Edward Albee Theatre Conference in June 2000. A published poet and short-story writer, Backer lives in New Hampshire.

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American Fuji 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is wonderful, provided you can ignore the corny romance that stands alone as the plague of the story. There is great description and detail, however, that give one a peek into Japanese culture. Overall, it IS worth while.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
baroque More than 1 year ago
I began reading this book last night. Before I knew it 60 pages were read! This book is delightful and well written. An easy engrossing read with great character development. I can't wait to continue reading this book tonight.
LaurenS33 More than 1 year ago
American Fuji is funny, touching, charming and thought-provoking. It gives a quirky, entertaining (and at times hilarious!) picture of the American expatriate experience in Japan, but it also captures that peculiar struggle of modern times, where the things we care deeply about are not so much threatened by a grand and glorious evil, but chipped away by the petty, the absurd, and the banal. Loved the characters -- I stayed up too late reading because I couldn't stop until I'd found out how it ended for them. A great read!
Prof_Nancy More than 1 year ago
I was not sure I really wanted to read this, but bought it, thinking it would be something different. And it was. The characters are engaging, and the story was a nice change from more usual formulaic novels. The reader also learns a great deal about the nuances of Japanese culture and why Americans have trouble understanding it. But it never feels like an intentional cultural lesson. The culture is part of the fabric of the plot and characters. The book is both funny and poigant. The frequency of information about the main character's illness was sometimes annoying and seemed to be aimed at making readers aware of it. But overall, I found this to be an enlightening, fun read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Definitely a must read for any "gaijin" who has ever lived in Japan as well as a fine book in its own right for everyone else-beautifully written. Having spent several years in Japan myself under similar circumstances, the quirky characters rang so true for me I'd swear we must have known the same people. I couldn't put it down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
light and silly...probably won't read any more of this authors books
DesignerReader More than 1 year ago
The flavor of this book is a little similar to the movie "Lost in Translation," in that Americans happen to meet in Japan and discover some things about their own lives and the culture in which they meet. I enjoyed the book as it was an easy read and held my interest throughout the book by keeping a steady pace. While not entirely predictable, the story was so steady that nothing seemed highly surprising. The author bio probably indicates that she has blended much of her autobiography into the fictional framework of this story.
SavvyBlue More than 1 year ago
This book will hook you on page one. An unusual heroine, a funny plot, a strange situation, a tense mystery....what's not to love? In fact, I have not picked up a piece of mainstream fiction I've enjoyed this much since CHOCOLAT and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. In Japan, the role of the gaigin is a catch-all, doing the jobs no one else wishes to fill ("dishonorable" positions). However, I was really flabbergasted by the treatment they receive, which in America would assuredly be labeled as the worst racist behavior (pointing them out, yelling "foreigner!" foreigner!", being rude to them, purposely confusing them, treating them as second-class citizens). "Expecting the unexpected" forms the theme of AF. I think this is how life is in Japan for foreigners only--Gaby makes it clear that after about 3 years, one learns to read through the silences and fill in the gaps. A stranger will find much that is "unexpected" when they don't understand the subtle nuances of Japanese communications. I loved the "romance," if you want to call it that, in this story because it was such an unusual one. Let's face it: how many times will you EVER read of a romance in which a man falls for a woman who is terribly ill? This made the love even more touching and realistic to me. Gaby and Alex are both outsiders. Gaby at first feels like she doesn't want to "play the obligation game" for someone who doesn't even realize he's in it. She feels a bit like an "insider" looking at the foolish "outsider," but slowly they are united through their outsider feelings. His loss of his son, I think, affects her. She understands mourning, in a way. And his need of her is likewise affecting. I was a bit surprised that the "conspiracy" wasn't really a conspiracy, but I loved the ending, with the long, slow climb up Mount Fuji. It was really deeply visual, and I felt his conclusions changing as he rose. Sara Backer is, clearly, a masterful writer. I trust her vision, her craft, and her voice, and as a reader I trust her to lead me somewhere magnificent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I 'm Japanese living in the wonderful USA and I truly enjoyed this book. Once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. American Fuji is honest, skillfully written, funny, and brilliant! Sara wrote so vividly that I could picture the scenes and I felt like I was there. She captured the differences in cultures and characters. I liked how the connections among characters are revealed gradually. There are many interesting characters: Alex(American man whose son, Cody, died in Japan), Gaby(former college professor, currently working for funeral company in Japan), Aoshima (the first customer that purchased a funeral package from Gaby), Eguchi (Gaby's boss who is Yakuza), and Marubatsu (professor of Cody's college), Lester (Gaby's british friend), and Rie (Japanese girl who works for the funeral company). The characters are so interesting and well-developed that I felt like they really existed. I hope you'll enjoy this book!
Wolfram8 More than 1 year ago
I just finished American Fuji and must tell you it was the most interesting book I've read in awhile. I began encountering/working with/competing with the Japanese since the '70's and I'm still trying to figure them out. This book was a fine study guide for me in many ways, teaching me more about the Japanese culture than all the "business culture" books and articles I've read over the years. I have a nephew and a niece both teaching English in Japan today. My niece, interestingly, did not have her contract renewed [no reason given] but she just landed a new teaching job in Osaka. Just maybe, her old school in a very rural area recognized her feeling of isolation and made it possible [necessary] for her to find a teaching job in a more palatable area. Or maybe she was railroaded, the same as Gaby. Such is Japan. It may sound like I'm reviewing a textbook so let me stress that this is a GREAT story. The characters all seemed very real, and I think the "over the top" posturing by some of the characters was an effective contrast to the Japanese "read between the lines" subtleties. The author resisted the temptation to give us a neat Hollywood ending with all the t's crossed and i's dotted so we all get to write our own last chapters. I look forward to her next effort.
JS_Judge More than 1 year ago
There are, without a doubt, many differences between European-American culture and Japanese culture. In American Fuji, Sara Backer explores the comic dissonances and poignant situations that Gaby Stanton, American expatriate, and Alex Thorn, a tourist who has become her responsibility, encounter in Japan. When Thorn, a divorced psychotherapist and author of Why Love Fails, accepts an invitation to promote his book in Japan, his real purpose is to investigate the death of his 20-year-old son a year earlier. What happened to Cody Thorn is the mystery at the core of the novel. Apparently, after Cody died in a motorcycle accident, his body was shippede home to Seattle along with a bill from Gone With The Wind Funeral Services. Alex, the grieving father, was disturbed by the condition of the body: Cody's heart was missing; it has been removed "as if for transplant", yet Cody, who had embraced Buddhism, had noted an unwillingness to participate in organ transfers on his driver's license. Moreover, Alex is unable to obtain any genuine information about Cody's death, and his suspicions are further aroused because he never receives any medical bills. So, once in Japan, he pursues his only lead: Gone With The Wind (pronounced "cone whizzer window"). This link leads him to Gaby, a recently hired employee of GWTW, which offers theme-park styled funerals for Japanese looking for nontraditional launches into the afterlife. Gaby's employment is a matter of survival. Dismissed from her position as an English teacher at Shizuyama University, based on unsubstantiated rumors of impropriety, Gaby is hired to encourage wealthy Japanese to buy into the modern way of dying and departure. The owner of GWTW feels she is an asset because she speaks Japanese and, as an American, has no qualms about selling non-traditional funeral services. Gaby's fellow Westerner, Lester Hollingsworth, finds Gaby's situation degrading, and urges her to return to America and feminism. Still, his concerns are not disingenuous. Women in academia will recognize him immediately. Indebted to Gaby for her help upon his arrival in Japan, he plays at being the solicitous charmer, yet his insidious interference undermines Gaby's career even as it fails to advance his own. Consequently, he attempts to flirt with Gaby in case he should require her professional expertise in the future. His need for control, combined with his sense of masculine superiority, prompts him to take care of Gaby's "burden," Alex Thorn, when Professor Marubatsu, Cody's college advisor, ignores Thorn in order to deceive him. Marubatsu, a Buddhist priest and a ranking member of the English Department, has no use for Thorn or Gaby or any American for that matter. Unlike Lester's sexism, his misogyny is open and accepted. He is selfish, ethnocentric, rude. He cavalierly replaces Gaby with a less competent, young Australian man whose self-effacing honesty about his limitations is refreshing and demonstrates that Lester's machinations were for naught. Because of her knowledge of Japanese culture, Gaby warns Alex his search may be futile and dangerous. He has no connections in a "strategic game, based on invisible obligation ledgers, all interactions conducted in code and swathed in ambiguity." The novel offers comedy, mystery, and justice, but at its center, it shows the resilience of sensitive adults who grasp the healing power of forgiveness. --J.S. Judge
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, and weeks later, I have continued to think about some of the issues it raises. Although I found myself engrossed in the story, the fascinating and (apparently) realistic depiction of Japanese culture alone makes this book well worth reading. Backer describes some very interesting situations from multiple points of view and provides detail about the characters' motivations. Actions and situations that initially seem incomprehensible gradually become clear. She touches on diverse issues--from organ transplants to audience ettiquette--highlighting the differences between Japanese and American culture. I particularly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in Japan.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I truly enjoyed this novel. I agree with PW and Kirkus reviews, above, and stronly disagree with the Libary Journal's negative review. First of all, this is not a 'romance.' It is a story of two expats, one longterm resident and one new arrival, who search for answers to how and why the son of the visiting character died and had his heart removed for transplant. Along the way they have to deal with Japanese culture, mores, and values that are sometimes strikingly different from their own. I don't think this novel portrays ALL Japanese as rude and insensitive; many characters are, but often the Gaigins' perceptions of these people change as they get to know them better. Any traveler to a strange country can relate to that. One aspect of the book I found especially appealing was that the main characters are not presented as beautiful and charasmatic but rather are ordinary people who grow on you. The book could have ended about 40 pages before it did, but that is a minor gripe.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Having lived in Japan and experienced much of what Ms Backer presents in this novel I have to say it is spot on. This book has an intriguing story to tell. If you've ever lived in Japan or plan to visit read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sara Backer's American Fuji is a book that you will not be able to put down from the first word to the last word. The adventures of Gaby and Alex are not only absorbing and exotic, they are a unique glimpse into the Japan that IS Japan. Having lived in Japan for eight years, I am pleased to say that Backer's ability not only to choose the right detail but to choose the most interesting, astonishing, revealing, and accurate detail is unparalleled. From Gaby's unusual occupation to the odd tension of dining in a foreign country as everyone watches your every move, every scene presents the atmosphere of Japan as I remember it, but whether you've been to Japan or not, you will have been there once you read this book. The story is compelling, the characters are fascinating, and the imagination that produced this work is engaging, remarkable, and wild--in the finest sense of the word. After a debut like this, I will buy every book Backer ever publishes. Buy it for yourself and for your friend who teaches English in Japan.
harstan More than 1 year ago
American therapist Alex Thorn on tour in Japan is allegedly promoting his book Why Love Fails. However, Alex has a deeper reason for his trip here. He needs to learn what happened to his son who died while a student in Japan. Alex's son was a practicing Buddhist and thus did not believe in organ donation. When his son died, his body lacked a heart, apparently harvested for transport use.

The only clue Alex possesses is the cancelled check he made out to 'Gone with the Wind', a Disney-like funeral service. Alex meets expatriate American Gaby Stanton, who informs him her company, has no record of his son and the bill is a clever forgery. Together they look for answers and Alex's grief lessens as he comes to care for his companion. She, in turn, learns that she wants to remain in Japan for more than just the medical coverage that helps pay for her health condition.

Sara Barker has written a mainstream drama that is unusual and poignant. The audience gains a unique glimpse into Japanese culture while realizing that when East meets West, anything can happen. AMERICAN FUJI has cross-genre appeal to a wide range of readers who loyally will look for more novels by Ms. Barker.

Harriet Klausner