A Tale of Two Americans in Japan
“Gaby Stanton, the expatriate protagonist in Sara Backer’s debut novel, American Fuji , sells parties for a living. To be more specific, she sells fantasy funerals: catering and cremation with special effects. When she visits potential clients in Shizuoka, Japan, to make her pitch, her boss, Mr. Eguchi, tells her to notice their toilets and cars. Toilets, he maintains, tell the truth about people.
So does fiction, and in this highly enjoyable first novel, Sara Backer, herself a veteran of living and working in Japan, imbues her story with enough verisimilitude and heartfelt emotion that we, too, feel immersed in a foreign culture with that sense of helplessness in finding one’s way.
Key to the central story in the novel are affairs of the heart, which abound in more ways than one. Gaby, who has recently been fired from her job as a university English teacher, takes the job pitching funerals in desperation—a desperation guided by her need for health insurance as a chronic condition takes a turn for the worse. Alex Thorn, an American psychologist and author of a self-help book called Why Love Fails, enters her life as he investigates the reasons behind his son’s death in Japan a year earlier. As his link to the firm that shipped his son’s body home, Gaby helps him find answers to his questions, but more questions arise linked to love of family, love of a man for a woman and love of place.” — BookPage
note from the author
ask what my novel is about, I find it difficult to answer with a plot summary.
To me, American Fuji
is about alienation and forgiveness—that's
the story arc, as writers say. And alienation is more than a matter of being a foreigner in Japan. Gaby is
alienated by her chronic illness (though less so in Japan than
United States) and Alex is estranged from his own heart due to his grief over
his son. Sometimes it takes an environment bigger than
oneself to bring about acceptance and forgiveness.
Japanophiles might be disappointed by the absence of geisha, samurai, and other romanticized remnants of feudal culture. While I, too, admire kimono patterns and shakuhachi music, I leave it to other writers to show you Japan's traditional culture and art. This story is about two Americans who meet in a distant land and change each other's lives. My inspiration for the double plot line is the Japanese tale of two stars that cross the sky only on Tanabata.
I read fiction for the characters, and in addition to Gaby and Alex, American Fuji delivers interesting supporting characters: a fantasy funeral entrepreneur who speaks English only in Beatles’ lyrics, a young Australian teacher who fears he’s turning into a character in his Japanese lesson book, a desperate British gambler, an egotistical Buddhist priest, and a secretary with a deformed foot who delights in pretending she is a spy in a Hollywood movie. Cameos include a teacher who makes visitors do push-ups in her class and a taxi driver who, practicing his English, insists he is not a man but a pen.
The kanji embossed on the original hard cover edition and printed on the title page of American Fuji are the final poem written by the Japanese poet Gesshu Soko just before his death, in 1696. What is American Fuji about? This:
Moving forward, moving back
Living, dying, coming, going—
Like two arrows, let flown each to each,
meet midway and slice
the void in continual flight—
Thus, I return home.