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American Woman: A Novel

American Woman - Susan Choi This is the type of book I typically avoid, but before I had a chance to run I was drawn in by this engrossing account of one fugitive trying to help three more people continue their evasion of the police. I was not far into the book (okay, chapter two) when I realized I was in a fictional account of the Patty Hearst story. For those younger than myself, Hearst is the grandaughter of media giant William Randolph Hearst (see: Kane, Citizen) who was kidnapped by the unknown SLA in 1974, then became devoted to their cause and turned to robbing banks. All but three of the SLA were killed in a shootout and Hearst was arrested about a year later.But Choi avoids some simple fictionalized version of an already bizarre event (this is a time when the idea of truth being stranger than fiction is clearly true). Instead, the "American Woman" is Jenny Shimada, a Japanese-American who is in hiding because of her interest in bomb making, which has put her boyfriend in jail. Shimada has been avoiding exposure by living in a small town doing renovation work for an older woman. Now she is recruited to help these three and we quickly see that all "radicals" are not cut from the same cloth. While she likes to blow up buildings, she does so when no one is in them and she makes sure they belong to the government. The SLA members have kidnapped an heiress and are as interested in armed warfare as they are about their principles, which seem stretched at best.Choi does not judge any of her characters and all are especially well drawn. Shimada is a complex person who seems to have it all figured out one minute, and is completely lost the next. In other words, she is a real person (and yes, she too is based on a real person). Pauline, the Patty Hearst of the story, is interesting not because she is supposed to by Hearst, but because we see how someone taken out of their element and thrown into the extreme opposite responds. She goes from pampered college student to bound, blindfolded, and gagged in closet for days. Her relationship with two of her captors is abusive and dependent, yet she is also drawn to Jenny. What she is not drawn to is her past life -- at one point her and Jenny drive by her old house, but she has no desire to return. That part of her life is gone.Which raises the question of what happens when we do disappear. When they are captured (oops, late spoiler alert for those who did not guess it) they refer to Pauline's year of hiding as "the lost year." But who lost the year? Pauline certainly did not. This plays out as a modern version of if a tree falls in the woods does it make a sound? Choi is playing with the idea of how our lives are and are not dependent on others involved with us, others viewing us, and others we pass by in life. While it seems obvious that losing track of others does not mean they have lost themselves, we often make that assumption -- "they fell off the face of the earth." As Choi is showing, life continues even when the circumstances change. Jenny and Pauline disappear for different reasons, their circumstances both change, and they themselves change, but that does not equate with being lost. But it does raises questions about how we define ourselves when those around us who do define us are gone. What makes make Jenny who she is and which is the "real" Pauline.Choi's prose is full and worth a slow read. The book is cinematic in its layout and she paints clear pictures everywhere she goes. The last section of the book loses some of the hold after the tension has disappeared, but it adds another interesting note to the story in comparing how fame impacts what should be similar situations for two people.Finally, we can return to Choi's title and spend time defining the two words of the title -- American and woman. In what ways is a Japanese-American raised in Japan for many years and an acknowledged bomber of American government properties an American? As the story unfolds the ideas of "woman" are also explored with a range of options considered. In other words, Choi leaves us a lot to think about.