In American Woman, Susan Choi’s brilliant new novel (after The Foreign Student), the events of the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst form the essential framework of the plot. While Choi’s novel is suspenseful in many places and profound in others, American Woman is essentially an analysis of a self, shaped by events past and hounded by uncertainty about whether those actions were even necessary in the first place.
The action begins in upstate New York, where Jenny Shimada, a radical Japanese-American woman, is in hiding after having bombed many empty government offices with her lover, William -- always at night, injuring nobody. These actions, she believed at the time, were statements against the Vietnam War — a way of protesting it, even “demolishing” the idea of the war. Her justifications for violence are called sharply into question when Rob Frazer, a friend from her past life, asks Jenny to take up three radical young charges: Yvonne, Juan, and Pauline. These fugitives are the remnants of the cadre that dissolved spectacularly in the aftermath of the Patty Hearst-like kidnapping. In fact, Pauline is the fictional equivalent of Patty Hearst. She is now part of the cadre, a believer in the cause, and is no longer a victim. Jenny is to provide refuge for the three fugitives, provide them with food and other necessities and also goad them on to work on their book, a revelation of sorts into the mechanisms of their actions.
Watching the three endlessly float along in a blind fugue or else be sharply galvanized by empty rhetoric, Jenny begins to question her own past decisions. When the little money that Frazer has been supplying runs out, the three decide to rob a local grocery store. The incident goes out of control and the group implodes. Jenny finds herself on the run again, this time with Pauline. Crisscrossing the country with Pauline, Jenny can sense the inevitable — their eventual arrest — and she worries now about protecting “their future selves from present behavior those selves might regret.” Jenny eventually confronts her past, including her father’s imprisonment at the Japanese internment camp Manzanar. She attempts to rationalize her decisions, but her life becomes an “ultimate disenchantment,” with the knowledge that, maybe, “she was no better than Juan or Yvonne.”
One of American Woman’s biggest ironies is the strong yet subtle pull that materialism exerts on its principal character. A memorable character study is that of Dolly, Jenny’s employer in the small town of Rhinebeck, New York. Old Dolly belongs to the moneyed class, living in a mansion where she occasionally serves tea and provides tours to visitors for a fee. Dolly’s absolute indifference to external events, the result of extreme wealth, is a source of endless fascination for Jenny:
She had never known someone with money—transcendent, atemporal money, money of such a baffling magnitude as to require only one intervention with the plane of reality to have eternal, irreversible effects. The kind of money impervious even to its own disappearance, over a couple of centuries of folly and abhorrence of labor….And never having known someone with money, she had never encountered what she now recognized as an axiom, that the rich are incurious.
In one of the book's more memorable scenes, young Jenny is flying to Japan when she notices a staircase in the aircraft that takes her upstairs. When the stewardess lets her upstairs to visit with the rich upper class seated there, Jenny is struck by the imbalances in class that money can bring. So it is that matters of class, too, form the basis of curiosity that Jenny harbors towards her charge, Pauline:
Everything about that (then) unknown girl had interested Jenny: her ancestors’ legends and ancestral homes and her alleged boarding-school rebellions. The inexhaustible store of her portraits: in tennis whites and first communion whites and giggling on the beach in a T-shirt, and unsmiling in formation with her parents. Her two-seater car and her desire “to be normal,” as described by her boarding-school friends. Her labyrinthine relationship to her own money. Her towering American pedigree.
In the end, when Pauline, out of necessity, lets Jenny down, Jenny finds the betrayal hard to stomach, though she can sense the desperation and even the logic behind it.
American Woman does a brilliant job of capturing Jenny’s loaded isolation in New York. The stark upstate setting combined with the workings of a town comprised of “a world of twenty-odd people or less, all living in the rhythms of a distant time,” only accentuates Jenny’s feelings of imprisonment in a town that she calls her “cell". “For them [Rhinebeck, the town]," she observes, “there was not even the melancholy of national shame that the 'average American' felt [after Watergate]. What must that be like, she thought. That complacence that said, I have no need to watch the strange signs, to scent change on the wind. I have no need to pay any attention.”
American Woman is a masterful chronicling of one life lived on idealistic principles, of a woman later trying to fit that life into more mundane everyday realities. It is tough for Jenny Shimada, to watch her principles become a part of history. For a person who lived at a time when principles were directly related to one’s own psyche, that could only mean a gradual erasure of the self, of seeing one’s life wasted before one’s own eyes. As Jenny observes the new crowd at Berkeley, the young twenty-one and twenty-three year olds, she observes that “theirs was a different world; living communally, buying their staples in brown paper bags, pushing the compost around with a hoe, were their forms of resistance.” In the space of just a few years, it was a “remarkably altered world,” where even the strongest forms of resistance were strangely innocuous compared to her own — a vaguely unsettling thought.