Contemporary authors often deal with the clash of two cultures
that plagues many first-generation children of immigrants. Frances Park's When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon is no exception.
Marcy Moon, the youngest daughter of Korean parents, grows up all too aware of the problems of living amid one culture in the home and another outside of it. She and her older sister Cleo, having shed their Korean names and taken on American ideals, cannot relate to the Korean culture or language, a fact which distances them from their parents--their mother in particular.
When watching Mama Moon write a letter in her native tongue, Marcy, dismayed, says,
At times like this, an Oriental screen went up between us. It divided our lives (73).
Marcy, known for her good grades, intelligence, and charitable
nature, is thrilled the summer her sister returns home from college,
renaming herself "Cleopatra Moon." While Cleo lines her eyes in black,
dresses provacatively, and runs around with what her mother calls "ugly, long-haired hippy boys," Marcy slowly begins to see through the cracks in her sister's persona--revealing a vulnerability and darkness which, in her adoration, she had failed to notice.
At the same time, Marcy is coming into her own sexuality--caught
between the "perfect" image of herself as the "good" girl, reading
American Teen magazine, and the "bad" girl, dressing suggestively and making out with her childhood tormenter, Frog Fitzgerald. The summer, which seemed to be filled with possibility, reaches its crisis point when her father, after a bout of depression, dies suddenly, scattering the family and plunging Marcy into guilt and regret. The book explores these concepts of beauty and identity, sexuality and shame, quite brilliantly.
The author sets up the novel, however, temporally many years into
the future, shortly after Cleo's husband has died in a car accident.
Marcy travels from her desert home in Nevada to the funeral in San
Francisco, and is lured into staying to mind Cleo's two children--one
a teenage boy whose distance from his mother grows greater each day.
Marcy, who has, at this point, subverted any interest in her Korean
heritage in favor of saving a vanishing Native American culture, clashes heavily with Cleo's financial success and materialism. While she struggles to remain centered through meditation and a connection to her simple life in the desert, she developes a desire to takes Cleo's children with her, bringing them to the desert in an effort to free them from an uncaring mother. Again, however, Marcy misjudges her sister and her connection to her children and dead husband.
In the end, When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon is very much about loss--of one's culture, one's family, and of oneself. Park handles all of this successfully, weaving the past and present together with great skill. The adult Marcy says, at one point, rather poignantly,
Everyone--even those that say 'I Love You'--is a footstep from walking away forever (224). Having lost her father, and subsequently any relationship with her sister, she is left with a mother with whom she cannot truly communicate. By the end of the novel, Marcy is reunited with her sister, gaining a deeper level of understanding and much of what she
Although the dialogue is often a bit cinematic and overly dramatic, this flaw is more than cancelled out by the emotional power running throughout the novel. Each character comes through with shocking
and breathtaking vividness, capturing, in both sisters, two women caught, in their own way, between two cultures.