Harmless Like You
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
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Buy *Harmless Like You* by Rowan Hisayo Buchananonline

Harmless Like You
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
W.W. Norton
320 pages
February 2017
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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In this relationship novel, complex family connections transcend time and place. In 1968, 16-year-old Yuki holds onto a constant misery “sloshing under her skin.” Yuki lives with her Japanese parents in an apartment in New York City, right at the edge of the Village “with Chinatown to the South and hookers to the North.” Yuki’s mother is determined that the family be “as American as possible.” For her father, America seems to have become an interruption into their Tokyo life. Yuki feels as if her life has been one “solitary amble.” She’s lonely and somewhat disconnected from the world around her, until she meets glamorous Odile Greychild. Like Yuki, Odile loves art and hates school.

The constant living on the edge has reduced both girls to the shadows--not knowing how or simply unwilling to stand up for themselves. Yuki has been sent a friend for her last American hours, the weeks before she is forced to return to Tokyo. With her new “spearmint-eyed friend,” Yuki visits the bars in Washington Square Park where she’s nearly seduced by group of boys. Yuki has a sudden awakening as the afternoon sun slices through the cigarette smoke, bouncing off the beer-stained floor. She decides to take up Odile’s offer to live with her and her mother, Lillian, a popular romance writer: “I want to stay here, I mean in America. I have nobody in Japan.”

To Yuki’s father, this country is a snare and a ruse. Yet neither his obsessive rage at Americans nor her mother’s obsessive polishing of their religious altar prevents Yuki from packing quickly and moving in for a trial run with the Greychilds. Even before trading her traditional Japanese culture for a new life and a new friend, Yuki has promised herself that she would “make something beautiful here,” and that her mother would see that it was worth it.

As the story bounces between Yuki and her adult son, Jay, Buchanan showcases Yuki’s struggles to become an artist in 1970s and '80s New York as well as her abusive relationship with frustrated budding poet Lou. In the contemporary sections set in 2015, Buchanan exposes Jay’s attempts to come to terms fatherhood. The author captures the psychological hurly-burly of a stressed-out family and a marriage always on the edge. Jay looks at his wife, Mimi, who has just given birth and is turned off by her body as well as by his baby daughter, Eliot, who he describes as “wet as a slug...the baby didn’t look like me, my wife, or anyone I knew.” The rancor and tension between Mimi and Jay refuses to die, an acrimony that has only increased after Jay had to give his beloved bald cat to his father to care for because Mimi, after the onset of her third trimester, had banned her from the apartment.

The catalyst for change and reconnection is his father's sudden death, forcing Jay to finally contact his mother. Jay hardly knows Yuki, but after discovering that his father never divorced her, he grudgingly travels to Berlin to try to get Yuki to sign off on his father’s house. Jay’s frustration with his mother is obvious, this strange, selfish “runaway thief” who deserted him when Jay was still a little boy. We see little evidence of heartbreak as Yuki looks back on her life, unable to confide in her mother about how each year of love was wasted and “left in a trashcan somewhere in the East Village.”

Although the novel is about both characters, the story really belongs to Yuki. Caught in the middle of Lou’s violent rages, Yuki’s self-image collapses with each new disappointment. She’s desperate to be the sort of artist “where people ask you what you do and you can say.” Most of the time, Yuki is distracted by Lou, “his last beer in the fridge moods.” She’s tired of “picking up the phone” at her secretarial job and addressing whatever it is that Edison wishes for, the young architecture student who courts Yuki with promises of love and security. Buchanan weaves these plot elements together, from Yuki’s artistic struggle and the ache of her first love for Lou, to Edison’s untamed winds of passion and the intrinsic complications that come with Jay’s sexual infidelity.

Art plays an important part in the novel. Jay’s life as a gallery owner and Yuki’s ambitious drawings symbolize their flaws and hopes and dreams. Buchanan gives us an intimate view into two looking-glass lives through which Yuki’s narrative comes full circle. She has lost faith in herself and in others, but through Jay, she is finally able to discover the redemptive qualities of love.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2017

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