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by Susan Choi

Pub Date: Sept. 5th, 2003
ISBN: 0-06-054221-7
Publisher: HarperCollins

An ambitious version of the Patty Hearst story: the result is intellectually provocative and vividly imagined but weighed down by its intentions.

Despite some fine writing, Choi’s second with a Japanese-American protagonist (the award-winning Foreign Student, 1998) seems as much like a seminar—on class, race, and power—as it does a novel. And although protagonist Jenny Shimada shares her thoughts about her life, her past, and her present experiences, she remains as abstract as the ideas she’s grappling with. At the start, 25-year-old Jenny, who, with lover William (now in prison), had bombed federal buildings in protest against the Vietnam War, is hiding out in New York State, working under an alias as she restores an old house. She’s tracked down by Frazer, a former activist, who asks her to take care of Juan, Yvonne, and Pauline, who not only robbed a bank but escaped a fire in California that killed many of their co-conspirators. Frazer has rented a remote farmhouse and wants the group to write a book that will tell their story, especially Pauline’s, in order to make money both for him and for their cause. As Jenny recalls her alienation from her Japanese-American father, who deplores her activism (though it’s his wartime internment that made him anti-American), she tries to keep the trio focused. But the others prefer to exercise, shoot guns, and compose tapes exhorting revolution—all a worry to Jenny, who is against indiscriminate violence. She observes that Pauline, the heiress, is as dedicated as the other two, and, after a robbery goes fatally awry, the group separates. Jenny and Pauline flee New York and start driving west. On the run, Jenny tries to understand Pauline as she recalls, not persuasively, her privileged birth and her reasons for cooperating with the revolutionaries. But the police are on their track, and betrayal is in the air. Jenny must think hard about her own moral choices.

Earnest but disappointing.