A contemplative novel in which a foreign student seeks an education in both women and American culture.
Two young roommates, Charles and Henry, are watching a TV program graphically depicting the execution of one of Henry VIII’s wives. It spurs a late-night philosophical conversation about men’s dominance over women, leading Henry to declare that “the American woman is quite exceptional and unique.” Charles, a foreigner originally from Africa and studying in Austin, Texas, fixates on the idea. Their subsequent dialogue about this certain allure of American women continues ad nauseam as they lazily consume tacos, pizza and TV. “Freedom makes her appreciate the fact that beauty is significantly essential to her inner calmness, confidence, and the environment,” Henry muses. Eventually, as they bring up these ideas with other friends and professors, fascinating observations arise about American culture compared to the rest of the world. Yet much of it feels far removed from the reality of an American woman’s life. Their dialogues remain completely respectful—there are no crass vulgarities that might be expected from college-age males, only vague allusions to “midnight trysts.” But the conversations are also formal and academic to the point of feeling stiff, as if the initial brainstorming for a feminist-studies paper has been superimposed over these young men. The story picks up the most momentum when actual American women are present, but this comes a bit too little, too late. As Henry’s friend Lisa points out: “I think for Charles to appreciate the mindset of an American woman, he needs to date one. Talking about her just won’t cut it. All talk and no action.” Along those lines, a stronger female counterpoint to Charles’ probing, right from the beginning, would have given the narrative some much-needed dramatic tension and balance. Unfortunately, for all the interesting ideas that Charles and Henry come up with relating to freedom and gender, their “modern American woman” is still trapped in the perspectives of men.
A thoughtful, philosophical skimming of American culture, but one that misses an opportunity to turn its observations into an engaging narrative.